Are you a liberal imperialist? Liberal imperialists are like kinder, gentler neoconservatives: Like neocons, they believe it's America's responsibility to right political and humanitarian wrongs around the world, and they're comfortable with the idea of the United States deciding who will run countries such as Libya, Syria, or Afghanistan. Unlike neocons, liberal imperialists embrace and support international institutions (like the United Nations), and they are driven more by concern for human rights than they are by blind nationalism or protecting the U.S.-Israel special relationship. Still, like the neocons, liberal imperialists are eager proponents for using American hard power, even in situations where it might easily do more harm than good. The odd-bedfellow combination of their idealism with neocons' ideology has given us a lot of bad foreign policy over the past decade, especially the decisions to intervene militarily in Iraq or nation-build in Afghanistan, and today's drumbeat to do the same in Syria.
It's not that the United States should never intervene in other countries or that its military should not undertake humanitarian missions (as it did in Indonesia following the Asian tsunami and in Haiti after a damaging earthquake). It should do so, however, only when there are vital national interests at stake or when sending U.S. troops or American arms is overwhelmingly likely to make things better. In short, decisions to intervene need to clear a very high bar and survive hardheaded questioning about what the use of force will actually accomplish.
So while I often sympathize with their intentions, I'm tempted to send all liberal imperialists a sampler cross-stitched with: "The road to hell is paved with good intentions." At a minimum, that warning might help them be just a bit more skeptical about the wisdom of their advice. But I'm lousy at needlepoint, so instead today I offer my "10 Warning Signs that You Are a Liberal Imperialist."
#1: You frequently find yourself advocating that the United States send troops, drones, weapons, Special Forces, or combat air patrols to some country that you have never visited, whose language(s) you don't speak, and that you never paid much attention to until bad things started happening there.
#2: You tend to argue that the United States is morally obligated to "do something" rather than just stay out of nasty internecine quarrels in faraway lands. In the global classroom that is our digitized current world, you believe that being a bystander -- even thousands of miles away -- is as bad as being the bully. So you hardly ever find yourself saying that "we should sit this one out."
#3: You think globally and speak, um, globally. You are quick to condemn human rights violations by other governments, but American abuses (e.g., torture, rendition, targeted assassinations, Guantánamo, etc.) and those of America's allies get a pass. You worry privately (and correctly) that aiming your critique homeward might get in the way of a future job.
#4: You are a strong proponent of international law, except when it gets in the way of Doing the Right Thing. Then you emphasize its limitations and explain why the United States doesn't need to be bound by it in this case.
#5: You belong to the respectful chorus of those who publicly praise the service of anyone in the U.S. military, but you would probably discourage your own progeny from pursuing a military career.
#6. Even if you don't know very much about military history, logistics, or modern military operations, you are still convinced that military power can achieve complex political objectives at relatively low cost.
#7: To your credit, you have powerful sympathies for anyone opposing a tyrant. Unfortunately, you tend not to ask whether rebels, exiles, and other anti-regime forces are trying to enlist your support by telling you what they think you want to hear. (Two words: Ahmed Chalabi.)
#8. You are convinced that the desire for freedom is hard-wired into human DNA and that Western-style liberal democracy is the only legitimate form of government. Accordingly, you believe that democracy can triumph anywhere -- even in deeply divided societies that have never been democratic before -- if outsiders provide enough help.
#9. You respect the arguments of those who are skeptical about intervening, but you secretly believe that they don't really care about saving human lives.
#10. You believe that if the United States does not try to stop a humanitarian outrage, its credibility as an ally will collapse and its moral authority as a defender of human rights will be tarnished, even if there are no vital strategic interests at stake.
If you are exhibiting some or all of these warning signs, you have two choices. Option #1: You can stick to your guns (literally) and proudly own up to your interventionist proclivities. Option #2: You can admit that you've been swept along by the interventionist tide and seek help. If you choose the latter course, I recommend that you start by reading Alexander Downes and Jonathan Monten's "Forced to Be Free?: Why Foreign-Imposed Regime Change Rarely Leads to Democratization" (International Security, 2013), along with Rajiv Chandrasekaran's Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan and Peter Van Buren's We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.
And if that doesn't work, maybe we need some sort of 12-step program…
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If you're troubled by the Justice Department's recent decision to secretly investigate the Associated Press and other journalists in an overzealous attempt to ferret out the source of some leaked information, you should be. But lost amid the outcry about this attempt to squelch press freedom is its connection to the broader thrust of U.S. foreign policy and our deeply ingrained tendency to exaggerate foreign threats. That tendency goes back at least to the early Cold War, when Dean Acheson told President Harry Truman to sell a proposed aid package to Greece and Turkey by going to Capitol Hill and giving a speech that would "scare the hell out of the American people." And he did.
When people are scared, they are more willing to let their government keep lots of secrets, lest supposed enemies find out about them and exploit them. Never mind that most of the mountains of classified information would be of little value to our foes, even if they got access to them. A population that is scared is also more willing to have the government go after anyone who tries to inform them by leaking information, even when knowing more might help ordinary citizens evaluate whether government programs were working as intended.
When people are scared, they are also more willing to support U.S. intervention in other countries, to prevent supposedly bad things from happening there or to prevent leaders we don't like from gaining or retaining power. In most cases, of course, neither U.S. prosperity nor security is directly affected by what happens in these various minor states, but threat-mongers are always good at inventing reasons why the outcome of some local struggle thousands of miles from our shores might actually threaten our prosperity or security. Remember domino theory? Fear, not greed, was the primary motivation behind U.S. interventions in the Korean War, in Iran, in Guatemala, in Lebanon, in Indochina, in the Dominican Republic, in Nicaragua, and in many other places, including more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. And that same fear that global trends might turn against us leads the United States to maintain a globe-encircling array of military bases and other installations, most of them completely unknown to the citizens whose taxes are paying for them. No other country -- not one! -- seems to think that its security depends on being able to wield lethal force on every single continent.
When people are scared, they are also more willing to support various sorts of covert operations, ranging from normal spying to the increasingly far-flung campaign of targeted assassinations and extra-judicial killings that the United States has been conducting for many years now. Never mind that a significant number of innocent foreign civilians have died as a result of these policies or that the net effect of such actions may be to make the problem of terrorism worse over time. It's impossible to know for certain, of course, because the U.S. government won't say exactly what it is doing.
Notice, however, that this cycle is self-reinforcing. The more places the U.S. intervenes, and the dirtier our methods, the more resentment we tend to generate. Sometimes entire populations turn against us (as in Pakistan), sometimes it may only be a small but violent minority. But either possibility creates another potential source of danger and another national security problem to be solved. If a local population doesn't like us very much, for example, then we may have to jump through lots of hoops to keep a supposedly pro-American leader in power.
To make all this work, of course, our leaders have to try to manage what we know and don't know. So they work hard at co-opting journalists and feeding them self-serving information -- which is often surprisingly easy to do -- or they try to keep a lot of what they are really doing classified. And when the country's national security policy is increasingly based on drone strikes, targeted killings, and covert operations -- as it has been under the Obama administration -- then the government has to go after anyone who tries to shed even partial light on all that stuff that most U.S. citizens don't know their government is doing.
Needless to say, it is all justified by the need to keep us safe. As Attorney General Eric Holder put it when asked about the investigation of AP, these leaks "required aggressive action ... They put the American people at risk."
The greater but more subtle danger, however, is that our society gradually acclimates to ever-increasing levels of secrecy and escalating levels of government monitoring, all of it justified by the need to "keep us safe." Instead of accepting that a (very small) amount of risk is inevitable in the modern world, our desire for total safety allows government officials to simultaneously shrink the circle of individual freedoms and to place more and more of what they are doing beyond our purview.
Don't misunderstand me. Civil liberties and press freedoms in the United States are still far greater than in many other countries, and the outcry over the Department of Justice's recent behavior reveals that politicians in both parties are aware that these principles are critical to sustaining a healthy democracy. My concern is that the trend is in the wrong direction and that the current drift -- under the leadership of a supposedly "liberal" president who used to teach Constitutional law! -- is an inevitable consequence of the quasi-imperial global role we have slid into over the past five decades.
In December 1917, in the middle of World War I, British Prime Minister Lloyd George told the editor of the Manchester Guardian that "if the people really knew, this war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don't know and can't know. The correspondents don't write and the censorship would not pass the truth." I sometimes wonder how Americans would react if we really knew everything that our government was doing. Or even just half of it.
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I think I have finally figured out the essence of Barack Obama's approach to foreign policy. In a word, he is a "buck-passer." And despite my objections to some of what he is done, I think this approach reveals both a sound grasp of realpolitik and an appreciation of America's highly favorable geopolitical position.
In particular, the bedrock foundation of Obama's foreign policy is his recognition that the United States is very, very secure. That statement doesn't mean we have no interests elsewhere, but none of them are truly imminent or vital and thus they don't require overzealous, precipitous, or heroic responses. There's no peer competitor out there (yet) and apart from the very small risk of nuclear terrorism, there's hardly anything that could happen anywhere in the world that would put U.S. territory or U.S. citizens at serious risk. We will inevitably face occasional tragedies like the recent Boston bombing, but the actual risk that such dangers pose is far less than many other problems (traffic fatalities, industrial accidents, hurricanes, etc.), no matter how much they get hyped by the terror industry and our over-caffeinated media.
Instead, the greatest risk we face as a nation are self-inflicted wounds like the Iraq and Afghan wars or the long-term decline arising from a failue to invest wisely here at home. Recognizing these realities, Obama has reacted slowly and in a measured way to most international events. He takes his time, remains calm, and prefers to pass the buck to others whose interests are more directly affected. Unrepentant neocons and liberal imperialists scorn this approach, because they never lose their enthusiasm for new and costly crusades, but most Americans don't seem to mind. Why? Because they recognize what the foreign policy establishment can't admit: What happens in Syria, Mali, most of Central Asia, and even the Korean peninsula just doesn't matter that much to the United States, and the outcome in most of these places won't make Americans poorer or less safe unless Washington does something stupid (like intervening with military force).
After being burned by the Afghan surge (a decision I'll bet he secretly regrets) Obama has become more and more of a buck-passer with the passage of time. He's not an isolationist or even someone who favors drastic retrenchment; he's just the first president in a long while who understands that the United States is already remarkably secure and just doesn't have that much to gain by interfering in the world's trouble spots. He's even smart enough to recognize that having thousands of nuclear weapons isn't necessary for the U.S. to be safe and that we might actually be safer if the number of nukes around the world were lower and better guarded. As a result, he's happy to let local partners bear the main burden and to back them up as necessary.
The exception to the above, which still supports my main point, is his reliance on targeted assasinations of suspected terrorists. This policy is in fact consistent with Obama's basic approach, because the short-term costs are small and it insulates him against any charge of pacifism. Moreover, to the extent that nuclear terrorism is the one scenario where U.S. security could be seriously affected, keeping a full-court press on Al Qaeda (or like-minded groups) is undoubtedly tempting.
I have my doubts about the net benefits of the drone war and targeted assassination program, but the rest of Obama's approach makes eminently good sense to me. Indeed, I wish he could give one of his trademark speeches explaining this logic to the American people. He probably can't, alas, because this sort of realism cuts against the rhetoric of "global leadership" that has been part of the Establishment echo-chamber for decades, not to mention the self-conceit of American exceptionalists. So Obama will continue to sound like his predecessors when he talks about America's global role; he just won't do most of the foolish things that most of them would have. Good for him, and for us.
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When they want to find the best in contemporary fiction writing, people often think of The New Yorker, Granta, or any number of small circulation literary magazines. When the subject is foreign policy, however, I'll take the Wall Street Journal op-ed page. Apart from maybe running a spell-check program on submissions, it's hard to see any sign that the editors there care about factual accuracy, provided that the piece in question satisfies their hawkish proclivities and other litmus tests.
So here's a little game you can play with one of their recent entries: Andrew Roberts' May 1 piece that invokes various historical examples to justify a preemptive strike by Israel on Iran. Your challenge: How many bald-faced errors can you spot in a single short piece?
First, let's start with the title: "The Case for Preemptive War." In fact, what Roberts is advocating in this piece is not pre-emptive but preventive war, and there is a big difference. A preemptive war is a military campaign launched in anticipation of an imminent enemy attack: You strike first because you know the opponent is getting ready to attack and you want to seize the advantage of striking first. Preventive war, by contrast, is a war launched to take advantage of favorable conditions (such as a favorable balance of power), even though the intended target is not in fact preparing an attack of its own. Preemptive war is sometimes permissible in international law; preventive war is not.
There is of course no serious evidence that Iran is about to attack Israel, and experts even disagree over whether Iran is actively trying to develop nuclear weapons. The U.S. intelligence community still believes there is no active nuclear weapons program underway. So Roberts' entire piece is based on a category mistake, which is not an auspicious way to begin.
Second, Roberts refers to Israel's "successful pre-emptive attacks on Iraq's Osirak reactor in 1981." These attacks were a tactical success (i.e., the reactor was destroyed) but a strategic failure, as they convinced Saddam Hussein to get serious about developing WMD and to accelerate a covert nuclear weapons program whose full extent we didn't discover until after the 1991 Gulf War. The real lesson for today is that an Israeli preventive attack on Iran might be just the thing to convince the clerical regime that it really does need a genuine nuclear deterrent. That's the policy that Israel adopted back in the late 1950s, when it began its own nuclear program, and that's the lesson Saddam drew in 1981. Why wouldn't the mullahs see it the same way?
Third, Roberts declares that Israel's "preemptive strike" on Egypt in 1967 "saved the Jewish state." This is nonsense. Although Nasser's decision to order the U.N. peacekeepers out of the Sinai and to send part of his army back in was both provocative and foolish, he was not preparing to attack Israel and Egypt's forces in the Sinai were not deployed for offensive action. Strictly speaking, the Six Day War wasn't preemption, though some Israeli leaders may have seen it that way. Israel had more troops arrayed against the Egyptian forces, and U.S. military intelligence correctly predicted that Israel would win easily even if the Egyptians attacked first. No less an Israeli patriot than Menachem Begin described it accurately when he said: "The Egyptian Army concentrations in the Sinai approaches do not prove that Nasser was really about to attack us. We must be honest with ourselves. We decided to attack him." That attack might have been justified on other grounds -- such as not allowing Nasser to alter the status quo in the Sinai -- but it was not a case of preemption and thus does not support Roberts' case.
(By the way, readers interested in understanding the origins of 1967 war would do well to avoid Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren's highly imaginative reconstruction, and rely on more serious scholarly accounts, such as Tom Segev's 1967 or Roland Popp's 2006 article "Stumbling Decidedly into the Six Day War.")
Fourth, most of Roberts' other examples are misleading or inapt, because they are not the "bolt-from-the-blue" acts of preventive war that he is advocating. Instead, the actions he describes -- such as the "Copenhagening" of the Danish fleet by the British in 1807 or the scuttling of the French fleet in Oran in 1940 -- were simply acts of strategic initiative undertaken in the midst of active and open hostilities. As such, they tell us nothing about the wisdom of launching an unprovoked preventive war with Iran today.
Finally, Roberts' entire case rests on the dubious belief that Israel has the military capability to inflict a decisive blow against Iran's nuclear infrastructure. There's little doubt that Israel could damage Iran's enrichment and reprocessing capability. But it cannot destroy the underground facility at Fordow, and it can at best delay Iran's nuclear potential by a few months or years. The fact of the matter is that Iran already knows how to get a nuclear bomb if it ever decides it really wants one, and repeatedly threatening it with regime change and possibly conducting a preventive (not preemptive) strike would be the single best way to convince them to go all-out for a full-fledged nuclear capacity. The only way to prevent an Iranian bomb is to convince the regime that it doesn't need one, but the strategy Roberts recommends would have the opposite effect.
The Wall Street Journal is a distinguished newspaper with an enormous and influential readership, and its reportage is often impressive and fair. But its op-ed page has been off the deep end for as long as I can remember. It should not be forgotten that the Journal's editors and commentators were among the most fervent advocates of invading Iraq, a modest little adventure that didn't turn out so well. All of which suggests that the paper really ought to come with a warning label, or perhaps a color-coding scheme that tells readers when they've left the world of facts and logic and entered into the realm of fiction. Or if that is asking too much, how about a bit of fact-checking?
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Today's example of sloppy journalism comes from the exalted pages of the New York Times. Here's the key passage, from an article reporting recent poll results showing that the American people are not enthusiastic about intervention in Syria:
"Americans are exhibiting an isolationist streak, with majorities across party lines decidedly opposed to American intervention in North Korea or Syria, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll."
Got that? If you're one of those people with doubts about the wisdom of intervening in Syria, you're an "isolationist." At a minimum, you're "exhibiting an isolationist streak."
A degree of prudent skepticism about the wisdom of entering the Syrian morasse is not isolationism, of course. Genuine isolationism would mean severing our security ties with the rest of the world and focusing solely on defending sovereign U.S. territory. Genuine isolationism means ending U.S. alliance commitments in Europe and Asia and telling our various Middle Eastern allies that they were going to have to defend themselves instead of relying on help from Uncle Sam. Genuine isolationism would eliminate the vast military forces that we buy and prepare for overseas intervention and focus instead on defending American soil. Real isolationists favor radical cuts to the defense budget (on the order of 50 percent or more) and would rely on nuclear deterrence and continental defense to preserve U.S. independence. And the most extreme isolationists would favor reducing foreign trade and immigration, getting out of the U.N. and other institutions, and trying to cut the United States off from the rest of the world.
The overwhelming majority of people who have doubts about the wisdom of deeper involvement in Syria -- including yours truly -- are not "isolationist." They are merely sensible people who recognize that we may not have vital interests there, that deeper involvement may not lead to a better outcome and could make things worse, and who believe that the last thing the United States needs to do is to get dragged into yet another nasty sectarian fight in the Arab/Islamic world. But many of these same skeptics still favor American engagement in key strategic areas, support maintaining a strong defense capability, and see some U.S. allies as assets rather than liabilities.
Hawks like to portray opponents of military intervention as "isolationist" because they know it is a discredited political label. Yet there is a coherent case for a more detached and selective approach to U.S. grand strategy, and one reason that our foreign policy establishment works so hard to discredit is their suspicion that a lot of Americans might find it convincing if they weren't constantly being reminded about looming foreign dangers in faraway places. The arguments in favor of a more restrained grand strategy are far from silly, and the approach makes a lot more sense to than neoconservatives' fantasies of global primacy or liberal hawks' fondness for endless quasi-humanitarian efforts to reform whole regions.
Bottom line: The Times did its readers a disservice by using the pejorative term "isolationism" in such a sloppy fashion. As Brad DeLong likes to say: "Why, oh why, can't we have a better press corps?"
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The more I think about the events that transfixed Boston and the nation last week, the more troubled I am. Not by what it says about the dangers we face from violent extremists (aka "terrorism"), but for what it says about our collective inability to keep these dangers in perspective and to respond to them sensibly. I am beginning to wonder if our political and social system is even capable of a rational response to events of this kind.
Don't get me wrong: The speed with which the Tsarnaev brothers were identified was remarkable, and citizens at the scene of the bombing showed resolution and humanity in helping the victims. Here in Boston, a great many people worked with energy, courage, and effectiveness to identify and apprehend the perpetrators. And one can only feel a sense of heartache and tragedy when reading about each of the victims, senselessly murdered.
It's the larger response to the tragedy that worries me. Although politicians from Barack Obama to Deval Patrick offered up the usual defiant statements about America's toughness and resilience in the face of terror, the overall reaction to the attacks was anything but. Public officials shut down the entire city of Boston and several surrounding suburbs for most of the day, at an estimated cost of roughly $300 million. What did this accomplish? It showed that a 19 year-old amateur could paralyze an entire American metropolis. As numerous commentators have already pointed out, a city-wide lockdown is not what public officials have done in countless other manhunts, such as the search for rogue cop Christopher Dorner in Los Angeles. And Dorner was a former Navy reservist who had killed four people and who was at least as "armed and dangerous" as the Tsarnaevs. Ladies and gentlemen, this is not the attitude that tamed the West, stopped the Third Reich, or won the Cold War.
The media frenzy that accompanied these events was equally disturbing. If terrorists "want a lot of people watching," then that's precisely what the American media gave them. It is probably unrealistic to hope that today's hydra-headed and commercially voracious media would respond to an event like this with even a modicum of restraint, but the feeding frenzy that CNN, Fox, and many other outlets engaged in must have been deeply gratifying to America's enemies. Television networks have learned not to train their cameras on the lunkheads who sometimes jump out of the bleachers and race across a baseball field. In a perfect world, these same organizations would act with similar wisdom when terrorists strike. In particular they would tell the public what it needed to know for the sake of safety, but they would spare us the round-the-clock, obsessive-compulsive, and error-ridden blather that merely gives extremists the publicity they seek.
As Boston shut down and the world watched, fourteen Americans were killed and more than 200 were injured in a factory explosion in Texas. Those people are just as dead as the four victims in Boston, yet their story is already fading to the back pages of the major papers. Meanwhile, the Tsarnaevs remain the Big Story and got profiled on 60 Minutes last night. As I write this, the death toll from last week's earthquake in China nears 200 -- with thousands injured -- but it barely rates a passing glance. And the week before the Marathon bombing, those courageous members of our bought-and-paid-for Senate rejected the very mildest of efforts to reduce the danger from guns, even though firearms kill over 30,000 Americans every year. As Michael Cohen noted in the Guardian, we fear that which scares us, but not the things that actually threaten us.
What is it about terrorism that terrorizes? Is the disproportionate attention it receives due to its seemingly random nature? The sense that it could strike any of us without warning? That explanation seems unlikely, given that other equally random dangers pose a greater risk. Is it because terrorism is the product of human volition, an explicit act of malevolence? This may have something to do with our tendency to overreact, yet other equally heinous acts don't seem to transfix society in the same way.
Or was it the intrusion of an act of wanton violence into an event -- the Boston Marathon -- that is supposed to be celebratory and fun? Or do we react viscerally to terrorism because such acts force us to think -- however reluctantly -- about the rage, animosity, and alienation that others feel towards us?
I don't know. But I cannot help but think that our political leaders have been letting us down ever since 9/11. Instead of teaching Americans that that actual risk from terrorism was minimal, they have kept us disrobing in security lines, obsessing over every bizarre jihadi utterance, and constantly fretting about the Next Big One. An entire industry of "terrorism experts" has arisen to keep us on the edge of our seats, even though many other dangers pose a far greater risk. The result of this obsession has been catastrophic: a failed effort to nation-build in Afghanistan, a wholly misbegotten war in Iraq, and an enormous distraction from any number of other issues -- education, climate, energy, the economy -- whose mismanagement will ultimately claim far more lives and create far more immiseration than those two misguided and angry young brothers did.
I do not mean to trivialize what happened last week. Four innocent people died, and many more were grievously hurt. Finding the persons responsible was necessary, and I'm as happy as anyone else that they are no longer at large. But the brutal reality of human existence is that it is fragile, and there are no guarantees. Bad things do happen to good people, and it is the task of our political leaders to help us keep our heads even when awful things occur. The grossly disproportionate reaction to the Marathon attacks tells me that our political system is increasingly incapable of weighing dangers intelligently and allocating resources in a sensible manner. Unless we get better at evaluating dangers and responding to them appropriately, we are going to focus too much time and attention on a few bad things because they happen to be particularly vivid, and not enough on the problems on which many more lives ultimately depend.
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Many people believe that the United States is incapable of bold and ambitious responses to contemporary policy problems, largely because its political institutions aren't designed to act decisively. In this view, the United States is saddled with a federal system where government power is divided, with multiple veto points and various "checks and balances" that help prevent excessive concentrations of power. Add to that free speech, an intermittently vigorous press corps, a vast array of interest groups, and a degree of political partisanship, and you have a recipe for gridlock.
Or so it is said. There is a grain of truth in this caricature: the men who designed the U.S. Constitution were wary of centralized power (and standing armies!), and it is not at all surprising that they designed a system that seems to make radical change difficult. But there are some important exceptions to that general rule, and the exceptions themselves are instructive.
For example, during World War II the Manhattan Project assembled much of the world's most eminent scientific talent in a crash program that produced an atomic bomb in less than five years. Moreover, at its peak the Project was consuming ten percent (!) of the electricity produced in the entire United States, and its facilities contained more floor space than the entire U.S. auto industry. Despite this vast effort, only a handful of Americans were even aware of the project until the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.
More recently, the 9/11 attacks produced a similarly rapid and far-reaching U.S. response, whose full dimensions are still not completely known by the U.S. public. In addition to the invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent lame-brained decision to invade Iraq, the United States also passed the Patriot Act and launched a wide-ranging global effort to track down and kill as many al Qaeda members as it could find. In the process, it has created a large infrastructure of government and contractor agencies and shifted the CIA's focus away from intelligence gathering and toward a global effort to eradicate al Qaeda and its affiliates through mostly lethal means.
The obvious conclusion to be drawn from these observations is that the U.S. system of government is quite capable of swift and ambitious policy initiatives when the public and key officials are really scared (as we were in 1941 and after 9/11). One might add the response to the invasion of South Korea in 1950 and to Sputnik's launch back in 1957. And this tendency in turn helps explain why threat-inflation is such a common tool within the foreign policy establishment. When Americans are feeling safe and secure, gridlock prevails. But when they are frightened, politicians are both able to launch big initiatives and motivated to do so by the fear that the public will punish them if they don't do enough to defend the nation.
The other important lesson is that big and bold initiatives are far easier when they are kept secret. Nobody knew about the Manhattan Project, and to this day nobody knows the full extent of what our national security machinery has been up to do since 9/11. Books like Mark Mazzetti's new The Way of the Knife and the Washington Post's important articles on "Top Secret America" have peeled back the veil to a degree, but there are undoubtedly many things being done in America's name (and with U.S. tax dollars) about which taxpayers are still unaware.
The danger is two-fold. First, if secrecy makes it easier to do big things, then policymakers will be tempted to make many issues as secret as possible. Classification will run amok, not to keep valuable information from our enemies but mostly from citizens who might object. And with secrecy comes a greater danger that foolish policies won't be adequately debated or scrutinized. This problem is widespread in authoritarian regimes where dissent is squelched and open debate is impossible, but it can also happen in democracies if the circle of decision is tiny and the public is kept in the dark.
The second danger stemming from popular ignorance is blowback. If Americans don't know what their government is doing (or has done), they won't fully understand why other societies view the United States as they do. In particular, Americans won't understand why others are sometimes angry at the United States, and they will tend to interpret anger or resistance as evidence of some sort of primordial or culturally-based hatred. The result is a familiar spiral of conflict, where each side sees its own actions as fully justified by the other's supposedly innate hostility. And I'd argue that spiral dynamics are at the heart of a number of difficult foreign policy challenges, especially in our dealings with the Arab and Islamic world. Unfortunately, unwinding spirals is not easy, and all the more so if a country still doesn't understand exactly why others are ticked off.
Addendum: By a strange coincidence, my colleague Larry Summers has published a column in today's Financial Times, making a somewhat similar argument about the ability of the U.S. government to act more decisively than many people often believe. You can find his views here.
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If you want evidence of the tunnel vision that continues to dominate U.S. national security thinking, check out David Sanger's news analysis yesterday on the "lessons" of Iraq. Sanger checks in with various former policymakers to explore the different implications one might draw from the Iraq experience for the current situation in Syria.
As expected, there is some difference of opinion expressed by the various people that Sanger interviewed. But what's striking is how the entire discussion of "lessons" revolves around tactical issues, and none of the people quoted in the article raise larger questions about how the United States is defining its role in the world or the broader goals it is trying to accomplish. Instead, they debate the reliability of pre-war intelligence, whether the U.S. can do a better job when it occupies other countries, or whether the U.S. can figure out ways to intervene in various places without getting sucked into costly quagmires. In short, it's all about whether we can do these things differently and not about whether we should do them at all.
What's missing from these reflections is any discussion of U.S. interests. What exactly is the goal when the U.S. contemplates intervening in another country? More importantly, how would military intervention directly contribute to the security and prosperity of the American citizens who will be paying for it and the soldiers whose lives will be at risk?
In the case of Syria, does it really matter which combination of thugs, warlords, Islamists, Alawis, Sunnis, etc., ends up running that unfortunate country? Syria has been governed by some very nasty characters for over half a century, and somehow the United States of America has managed to do pretty well despite that fact. Do U.S. strategic interests really demand that it get directly involved in reshaping Syrian politics now? Do we have any idea how to do that? Even if we did, there is no guarantee that a future Syrian government would be reliably pro-American, especially given the complex regional environment and the diverse currents of opinion among the various contenders for power. Not to mention the fact that the U.S. Middle East policy has alienated lots of people in that part of the world.
To be sure, one can justify greater U.S. involvement on purely humanitarian grounds. (Of course, if that were our main concern, you'd think we'd be doing more for the million-plus Syria refugees). Yet even here, you need a plausible and convincing plan for ending the violence, you need to be sure intervening won't make things worse, and you need to convince the American people to support the costs and risk solely for the purpose of saving Syrian lives. Needless to say, pouring more weaponry into the Syrian cauldron isn't going to do that, and the U.S. military isn't eager to put boots on the ground there either.
But what about those chemical weapons? It would obviously not be a good thing if Assad starts using them, or if they began to leak out into the global arms market or got acquired by anti-American groups. So one can imagine conducting a very limited operation intended to destroy or seize arms caches before they fell into the wrong hands. But chemical weapons, dangerous though they are, are not nuclear weapons, and one would still need to do a pretty careful cost-benefit analysis before plunging ahead.
When Franklin Roosevelt took the United States into World War II, he did so on the basis of very clear strategic reasoning. As outlined by the 1941 "Victory Program," he understood that if Germany defeated the Soviet Union and was able to consolidate the industrial power of Europe, it might pose a potent long-term threat to U.S. security. That logic led him to back Great Britain through Lend-Lease and to work assiduously to bring the U.S. into the war. Going to war was a big step back then, it's no accident that this was the last time Congress issued a formal declaration of war.
Today, U.S. military superiority gives presidents the freedom to fight wars of choice (or whim), which allows foreign policy gurus to sit around and think up lots of interesting ways to use American power. We even have drones and special forces that permit us to conduct acts of war without anyone being fully aware of what we are doing. Yesterday: Kosovo, Colombia, Iraq, and Libya. Today: Afghanistan, Yemen, and a few other places. Tomorrow, maybe Syria or Mali. And these same ambitious experts can always come up with a rationale for these activities, because smart people can always invent some sort of connect-the-dots scenario suggesting why failure to act might eventually lead back to something unfortunate happening to somebody or something we care about. But this sort of worst-case reasoning -- the life blood of our national security establishment -- isn't really strategy at all. It was the kind of thinking that led us into Iraq, and it's still alive and well today.
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Why did the U.S. fail in Afghanistan? (I know we are pretending to have succeeded, but that's just camouflage to disguise what is in fact an embarrassing if predictable defeat). The reasons for our failure are now being debated by people like Vali Nasr and Sarah Chayes, who have offered contrasting insider accounts of what went wrong.
Both Nasr and Chayes make useful points about the dysfunction that undermined the AfPak effort, and I'm not going to try to adjudicate between them. Rather, I think both of them miss the more fundamental contradiction that bedeviled the entire U.S./NATO effort, especially after the diversion to Iraq allowed the Taliban to re-emerge. The key problem was essentially structural: US. objectives in Afghanistan could not be achieved without a much larger commitment of resources, but the stakes there simply weren't worth that level of commitment. In other words, winning wasn't worth the effort it would have taken, and the real failure was not to recognize that fact much earlier and to draw the appropriate policy conclusions.
First, achieving a meaningful victory in Afghanistan -- defined as defeating the Taliban and creating an effective, Western-style government in Kabul -- would have required sending far more troops (i.e., even more than the Army requested during the "surge"). Troop levels in Afghanistan never approached the ratio of troops/population observed in more successful instances of nation-building, and that deficiency was compounded by Afghanistan's ethnic divisions, mountainous terrain, geographic isolation, poor infrastructure, and porous borders.
Second, victory was elusive because Pakistan continued to support the Taliban, and its territory provided them with effective sanctuaries. When pressed, they could always slip across the border and live to fight another day. But Washington was never willing to go the mattresses and force Pakistan to halt its support, and it is not even clear that we could have done that without going to war with Pakistan itself. Washington backed off for very good reasons: We wanted tacit Pakistani cooperation in our not-so-secret drone and special forces campaign against al Qaeda, and we also worried about regime stability given Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. Unfortunately, these factors made victory even harder to achieve.
Third, we couldn't get Karzai to reform because he was the only game in town, and he knew it. Unless the U.S. and NATO were willing to take over the whole country and try to govern it ourselves -- a task that would have made occupying Iraq seem easy -- we were forced to work with him despite his many flaws. Successful counterinsurgencies require effective and legitimate local partners, however, and we never had one.
In short, the U.S. was destined to lose because it didn't go all-out to win, and it shouldn't have. Indeed, an all-out effort would have been a huge mistake, because the stakes were in fact rather modest. Once the Taliban had been ousted and al Qaeda had been scattered, America's main interest was continuing to degrade al Qaeda (as we have done). That mission was distinct from the attempt to nation-build in Afghanistan, and in the end Afghanistan's importance did not justify a substantially larger effort.
By the way, I am not suggesting that individual commanders and soldiers did not make enormous personal sacrifices or try hard to win, or that the civilians assigned to the Afghan campaign did not do their best in difficult conditions. My point is that if this war had been a real strategic priority, we would have fought it very differently. We would not have rotated commanders, soldiers, and civilian personnel in and out of the theatre as often as we did, in effect destroying institutional memory on an annual basis and forcing everyone to learn on the job. In a war where vital interests were at stake, we certainly wouldn't have let some of our NATO partners exempt the troops they sent from combat. And if the war had been seen aa a major priority, both parties would have been willing to raise taxes to pay for it.
Thus, the real failure in Afghanistan was much broader than the internal squabbles that Nasr and Chayes have addressed. The entire national security establishment failed to recognize or acknowledge the fundamental mismatch between 1) U.S. interests (which were limited), 2) our stated goals (which were quite ambitious), and 3) the vast resources and patience it would have required to achieve those goals. Winning would have required us to spend much more than winning was worth, and to undertake exceedingly risky and uncertain actions towards countries like Pakistan. U.S. leaders wisely chose not to do these things, but they failed to realize what this meant for the war effort itself.
Given this mismatch between interests, goals, and resources, it was stupid to keep trying to win at a level of effort that was never going to succeed. Yet no one on the inside seems to have pointed this out, or if they did, their advice was not heeded. And that is the real reason why the war limped on for so long and to such an unsatisfying end.
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President Obama is about to leave for the Middle East -- including his first trip to Israel as president -- and he's getting the usual advice from all corners on what to do while he's there. Here are a few things you might want to read and a comment you may want to ponder.
You can start with Ben Birnbaum's piece in the New Republic on the disappearing two-state solution. It's well-reported, fair-minded, and certainly won't make you optimistic about the prospects for a deal. Birnbaum can't quite admit that the 2SS might be dead already, and its worth remembering that a peace process that is always on life support but never really ends gives Israel the diplomatic cover to keep expanding control over the West Bank. Nonetheless, it is an intelligent and sobering piece, and its publication in the post-Peretz TNR is significant in itself.
Then, follow that up by re-reading the Boston Study Group's Two States for Two Peoples: If not now, when?, along with a new introduction, available here. The Boston Study Group is an informal collective of colleagues with extensive background on these issues, and I've been privileged to be a member of the group for the past several years. The new introduction reminds Obama that he has a chance to reinvigorate the quest for peace and urges him to take the leap. I'm not optimistic that he will, but I'd be happy to be proven wrong in this case.
Finally, take a quick look at Jerry Haber's discussion of "Who is a Liberal Zionist?" available at Open Zion and Jerry's own blog. It's a fascinating discussion of the tensions between liberal values and Zionism, and he nicely skewers the contradictions common to many liberal Zionists. His analysis will be all the more relevant if the two-state solution ultimately fails and the world ends up with some sort of de facto one-state outcome, which is where we are headed if there is no change of course.
And now my comment. Obama's trip is bound to generate more discussion about how to get the peace process started again, along with the usual back-and-forths about which side is more responsible for the current impasse and the familiar debates about what an appropriate solution might be. And a lot of defenders of Israel will repeatedly remind us that they oppose the occupation and are in favor of two states.
But here's the litmus test you should use: How many of them are in favor of the United States using the leverage at its disposal to bring the occupation to an end and obtain a two-state outcome? In other words, how many of them favor the United States using both carrots and sticks with both sides in order to achieve the outcome that they claim to favor? How many of them would openly back Obama if he did just that? The United States has steadfastly refused to use its leverage evenhandedly in the past, and the result after twenty-plus years of "peace processing" has been abject failure. Not only is failure bad for Israelis and Palestinians alike, it doesn't exactly do wonders for America's credibility as an effective mediator. Yet you rarely hear advocates of a two-state solution calling for the U.S. to try a different approach.
And don't forget that the Palestinians are already under tremendous pressure -- stateless, under occupation, dependent on outside aid, and watching the territory in dispute disappear as settlements expand. At this point, there's little to be gained by squeezing them even harder. If you genuinely believe in "two states for two peoples," then you ought to be openly calling for the United States to act like a true global power and knock some heads together. And anyone who claims to oppose the occupation and support the 2SS while insisting that the United States must back Israel no matter what it does is either delusional or disingenuous.
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The ten-year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq is generating a variety of post-mortems and reflections from many of the participants in the pre-war debate. Andrew Sullivan has been especially forthright in acknowledging his own errors during that time and has a lively thread up and running probing what some famous people like Bill Clinton had to say on the matter a decade or so ago.
Going to war is a fateful decision for any country, but it is now clear that most of the U.S. foreign policy establishment performed abysmally during the run-up to the war. Top officials in the Bush administration told several important lies to bolster the case for war, such as the claim that there was no doubt Iraq had WMD -- indeed, they said they knew where they were - -and the charge that Saddam was in cahoots with Al Qaeda.
The majority of prominent Democrats and plenty of card-carrying liberals backed the war as well. Indeed, almost all of the top foreign policy officials in Obama's first term were vocal supporters of the invasion, with the president himself being a notable exception. Denizens of the usual Washington think-tanks -- including supposedly "moderate" organizations like Brookings and bipartisan organizations like the Council on Foreign Relations -- were also filled with pro-war cheerleaders. The same was true of the New York Times and Washington Post, whose editors and reporters swallowed the Bush team's sales pitch hook, line, and sinker. All in all, the decision to invade was taken with a degree of carelessness and callowness unworthy of any country with pretensions to global leadership. And one should never forget that this reckless decision cost more than $1 trillion and led to thousands of American battlefield casualties and many ruined lives. Of course, the Iraqi people have suffered even more over the past decade.
But not everyone thought invading Iraq was a good idea. In September 2002, thirty-three senior scholars who specialize in security affairs published a quarter-page ad on the New York Times op-ed page, declaring, "War with Iraq is Not in America's National Interest." You can read the original ad here. It is striking how accurate its warnings were. At the risk of sounding like I am bragging, I was one of the signatories, although I certainly take no pleasure in having anticipated the trouble ahead. It would have been better for the United States, not to mention Iraq, if the hawks had been proven right. Sadly, this was not to be.
As the ten-year anniversary nears, I want to call attention to the other people who signed the ad and helped pay for its publication. Some of them are no longer with us, but their prescience and their willingness to resist the stampede for war should not go unremembered. Here are the other signatories, with their professional affiliations at the time.
Robert Art, Brandeis
Richard Betts, Columbia
Dale Copeland, Univ. of Virginia
Michael Desch, Univ. of Kentucky
Sumit Ganguly, Univ. of Texas
Alexander L. George, Stanford
Charles Glaser, University of Chicago
Richard K. Hermann, Ohio State
George C. Herring, Univ. of Kentucky
Robert Jervis, Columbia
Chaim Kaufmann, Lehigh
Carl Kaysen, MIT
Elizabeth Kier, Univ. of Washington
Deborah Larson, UCLA
Jack S. Levy, Rutgers
Peter Liberman, Queen's College
John J. Mearsheimer, University of Chicago
Steven E. Miller, Harvard University
Charles C. Moskos, Northwestern
Robert A. Pape, University of Chicago
Barry R. Posen, MIT
Robert Powell, UC-Berkeley
George H. Quester, Univ. of Maryland
Richard Rosecrance, UCLA
Thomas C. Schelling, Univ. of Maryland
Randall L. Schweller, Ohio State
Glenn H. Snyder, Univ. of North Carolina
Jack L. Snyder, Columbia
Shibley Telhami, Univ. of Maryland
Stephen Van Evera, MIT
Kenneth N. Waltz, Columbia
Cindy Williams, MIT
It is worth noting that none of the signatories on this list has held a government position since then, and my guess is that none is likely to do so in the future. Instead, it is mostly people who backed the war who have occupied key policymaking positions in both the Bush and Obama administrations. Even today, a reputation for hawkishness is a prerequisite for being taken seriously in Washington.
Policymakers and pundits love to disparage "ivory-tower" academics for being aloof, out-of-touch, or insufficiently sensitive to how the real world works. Sometimes those charges are valid. But in this case -- and many others -- it was the "experts" inside-the-Beltway who got it tragically wrong and the academics who got it right.
Postscript: A subsequent effort to critique the Bush administration's handling of the war -- organized under the aegis of "Security Scholars for a Sensible Foreign Policy" -- produced an open letter signed by 851 people. The text is here; an account of this group's activities can be found here.
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Gideon Rachman is one of the best-informed and most sensible columnists writing on foreign affairs these days, and he's one of the reasons you ought to subscribe to the Financial Times. (Compared to the FT oped page, Wall Street Journal opeds on foreign affairs often read like a weird combination of yellow journalism and worst-case planning, with a shot of Mad Magazine thrown in).
It therefore pains me to have to take issue with Rachman's recent column warning of rising tensions in East Asia, and all the more so because he quotes two respected colleagues, Joe Nye and Graham Allison. His concern is the possibility of some sort of clash between China and Japan, precipitated by the territorial dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands exacerbated by rising nationalism in both countries and concerns over shifting balances of power. These are all legitimate worries, although it's hard to know just how serious or volatile the situation really is.
The problem lies in Rachman's use of the World War I analogy -- specifically, the July Crisis that led to the war -- to illustrate the dangers we might be facing in East Asia. The 1914 analogy has been invoked by many experts over the years, of course, in part because World War I is correctly seen as an exceptionally foolhardy and destructive war that left virtually all of the participants far worse off. Moreover, popular histories like Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August (which is said to have influenced John F. Kennedy's handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis), and A.J.P. Taylor's War by Timetable have reinforced an image of World War I as a tragic accident, a war that nobody really intended. In this version of history, the European great powers stumbled into a war that nobody wanted, due to miscalculations, rigid mobilization plans, extended alliance commitments, and poor communications.
This interpretation of 1914 has been especially popular during the nuclear age, as it seemed to provide a bright warning sign for how great powers could blunder into disaster through misplaced military policies or poor crisis management. And given Rachman's concerns about the possibility of a Sino-Japanese military clash over the disputed islands, and the obvious costs that any serious clash of arms would entail, it's not hard to see why he's drawn to the 1914 case.
The problem, however, is that this interpretation of the origins of 1914 is wrong. World War I was not an accident, and the European great powers didn't stumble into it by mistake. On the contrary, the war resulted from a deliberate German decision to go to war, based primarily on their concerns about the long-term balance of power and their hope that they could win a quick victory that would ensure their predominance for many years to come.
As Dale Copeland lays out in the fourth chapter of his masterful book, The Origins of Major Wars, German Chancellor Theobald von Bethman-Hollweg used the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria as a pretext to launch a preventive war -- something Germany's leaders had been contemplating for some time -- and he cleverly manipulated the July Crisis in an attempt to pin the blame for the war on others. Not only did Germany's leaders give Austria-Hungary a "blank check" to go after Serbia (which had backed the terrorist group that had assassinated the Archduke), they egged the reluctant Austrians on at every turn. German leaders also knew that a Balkan war was likely to trigger Russian military mobilization -- as it eventually did -- and that this step would give them the pretext for war that they were looking for. The war, in short, was not an accident, at least not in the sense that Rachman means.
This is not to say that errors and miscalculations were not at play in 1914. Russia and Great Britain failed to figure out what Germany was planning in a sufficiently timely fashion, and Germany's leaders almost certainly exaggerated the long-term threat posed by Russian power (which was their main motivation for going to war). German military planners were also less confident of securing the rapid victory that the infamous Schlieffen plan assumed, yet they chose to roll the iron dice of war anyway.
But the key point is that the European powers did not go to war in 1914 because a minor incident suddenly and uncontrollably escalated into a hegemonic war. The real lesson of 1914 for the present day, therefore, is to ask whether any Asian powers are interested in deliberately launching a preventive war intended to establish regional hegemony, as Germany sought to do a century ago.
The good news is that this seems most unlikely. Japan is no position to do so, and China's military capabilities are still too weak to take on its various neighbors (and the United States) in this fashion. And in the nuclear age, it is not even clear that this sort of hegemony can be established by military means. If China does hope to become the dominant power in Asia (and there are good realist reasons why it should), it will do so in part by building up its military power over time -- to increase the costs and risks to the United States of staying there -- and by using its economic clout to encourage America's current Asian allies to distance themselves from Washington. It is not yet clear if this will happen, however, because China's future economic and political trajectory remains highly uncertain. But deliberately launching a great power war to achieve this goal doesn't seem likely, and especially not at the present time.
There is one feature of the East Asian security environment that is worrisome, however, though it bears little resemblance to pre-war conditions in 1914. Today, conflict in East Asia might be encouraged by the belief that it could be confined to a naval or air clash over distant (and not very valuable) territories and thus not touch any state's home territory or domestic population. All Asian countries would be exceedingly leery of attacking each other's homelands, but naval and air battles over distant islands are precisely the sort of military exchange one might use to demonstrate resolve and capability but at little or no risk of escalation. That's the scenario that I worry about, but that is not what happened back in July 1914.
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Barack Obama has received lots of advice on what he should say in his second inaugural. Unlike some commentators, I hope he doesn't use it as an opportunity to articulate a new grand strategy. George Bush tried that approach, and his second inaugural was a grandiose embarrassment.
At his best, Obama has a rare ability to convey painful truths to the American people and help us consider them in a new light. That is what he did in his famous Philadelphia speech on race, and his speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. In that spirit, here's my fantasy about what he might tell the American people tomorrow. It's high time they heard it.
My fellow Americans:
The United States is a country of great ideals -- of liberty, equality, opportunity, and democracy -- truths that our Founding Fathers held to be "self-evident." These principles have inspired us from the start, and given us standards by which to judge our achievements and to reveal where we have fallen short.
Yet there is another set of truths that has guided us no less than these principles, truths that we are usually reluctant to acknowledge, even to ourselves. It is those neglected but important realities that I shall speak of today.
In addition to being a country of lofty ideals, America is also a land whose best leaders have been imbued from the beginning with a deep sense of realism about the world in which we live and the ways we must make our way through it. America's best moments have come when our ideals were tempered by a clear sense of what was in America's national interest and what our capabilities would allow us to do. In those moments, we also understood what lay beyond our reach.
As realists, the Founding Fathers understood that men (and women) are not angels, so they labored to devise a political system that could serve the governed without turning into tyranny. Because they recognized the central role of power and the inevitable frailties of all human beings, they wisely devised a system of checks and balances that has helped safeguard our liberties for well over two centuries.
As realists, our early leaders understood that our fledgling Republic was unlikely to thrive if it was surrounded and beset by powerful rivals. So they set themselves the task of continental expansion and economic growth, and, at the same time, they committed our young nation to driving the European great powers from the Western hemisphere. Over the next century, the Monroe Doctrine and Manifest Destiny made the United States supreme among its immediate neighbors, transforming the 13 original colonies into the most secure great power in history. But let us never forget that these achievements were borne on the backs of the original inhabitants of this continent, and that America's rise to great power was accompanied by the sufferings of millions.
As realists, we Americans understand the dangers that would arise if other great powers came to dominate their regions of the world in the same way that the United States dominates the Western hemisphere. So our leaders took the United States into both World Wars, not just to defeat aggressive dictators but also to uphold the balance of power in Eurasia. And our greatest presidents understood that success in both war and peace sometimes requires painful compromises. Franklin Roosevelt had no illusions about the evils of communism, but he also knew that allying with the Soviet Union during World War II was necessary to defeat the greater evil of Nazi Germany. In his words, "to cross that bridge I would hold hands with the devil."
Realism also guided the United States to victory in the long Cold War. Instead of withdrawing from Europe and Asia when World War II was over, America forged alliances with key powers in both regions to contain the communist threat. Some of our partners did not share all of our ideals, but American leaders understood that these ideals would not long survive were the Soviet Union to prevail. At the same time, U.S. leaders understood that trying to roll back communism by force of arms was far too dangerous in a nuclear age, and that the best approach was to patiently wait for the Soviet empire to self-destruct.
Even today, as we strive to advance our core ideals both at home and abroad, we must be guided not only by our hopes and dreams, but also by a clear-eyed sense of what is necessary and a hard-headed recognition of what is possible. As realists, we now know that whole societies cannot be remade overnight, and especially not by military occupation. As realists, we understand that our ideals and our interests will sometimes conflict, and that sometimes we must do what we must rather than what we might wish. As realists, we understand that climate change is not a problem we can wish away, and that addressing it may require significant sacrifices. And as realists, we understand that states will be drawn to us if we are strong but not aggressive, and that they will distance themselves if we use our power unwisely and too often.
Realism also reminds us that our success as a nation is not measured by military power alone; because our military prowess depends on a strong economy and a loyal and well-educated population. Realists also know that states are as likely to err by exaggerating dangers they face as by paying them insufficient heed. We are neither stronger nor safer as a nation when we squander money on senseless wars or on unnecessary weapons, and when we forgo opportunities to resolve disputes with diplomacy.
Finally, realism reminds us that no country has a monopoly on wisdom or virtue. We are justly proud of America's many achievements, but we must also be ready to acknowledge our mistakes and learn from them. Indeed, perhaps our greatest strength as a people has been our willingness to learn from the past, to discard outmoded or unjust beliefs and policies, and to move forward with alacrity and audacity.
Make no mistake: America is, and always has been, an exceptional nation. Our citizens have come here from every corner of the world, and America has woven men and women of every race, creed, and religion into a resilient whole cloth. Our power is unmatched and our potential for good is enormous. We have the capacity to build an even better America and to help forge a safer and more just world. But our success in pursuit of these grand goals will require much more than lofty visions and pious principles. It will also require us to pursue those goals with an abiding sense of humility, the humility that a realistic approach to life and politics teaches. If we follow that path, then we shall surely succeed.
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I'm in Beijing, attending a conference on Sino-American relations. Lots of interesting comments so far, but what has been most striking (to me, at least), is the willingness of the American participants to tell our Chinese hosts what their foreign policy ought to be. I think the Chinese government has made a number of foreign policy mistakes in recent years -- mostly by throwing their weight around prematurely -- but it's not like American foreign and national security policy has been an untrammeled success for the past decade or so. In our case, a bit of humility would be so unexpected that it would leave our counterparts completely baffled.
This trip is the third time I've circumnavigated the globe (Boston-Newark-Singapore-Beijing-Chicago-Boston). That's no great achievement in this day and age, but I mention it because I've been reading a fascinating book: Joyce E. Chaplin's Round about the Earth: Circumnavigation from Magellan to Orbit. I'm only up through the voyages of James Cook, and the central lesson of the early attempts at circumnavigation is that it was fatal to most everyone who tried it. Magellan, as you probably know, led the first circumnavigation but didn't survive the trip, and survival rates were typically less than 20 percent. Today we feel bad if we have to fly economy.
The book also reminds me how recent our awareness and understanding of the globe really is. Homo Sapiens has been around for maybe 50,000 years, but knowledge of the full expanse of the globe and the ability to traverse it in its entirely has only been known since the 16th century. In other words, humans have been aware of the full extent of our shared planetary home for only about 20 generations, or less than 1 percent of the human experience. Small wonder that all these far-flung peoples still have trouble getting along.
So 2012 is coming to an end and you're busy planning how to ring in 2013. Are you aiming to host a world-historical event? If so, you might want to think about the impact that some past festivities have had on international affairs. And be careful: sometimes a poorly planned party can have all sorts of unintended consequences. As both inspiration and public service, therefore, today I provide my own list of Top Five Parties in International History.
#1: The Boston Tea Party. As a loyal American, I gotta start with this one, which helped kick off the War of Independence and free the American colonists from King George III's cruel yoke. I know, I know: it wasn't really a party, it was an act of political protest by the Sons of Liberty. It didn't even get the name "tea party" for decades. But c'mon: do you really think the participants were all sober, and that tossing all that English tea in the water wasn't fun? And in retrospect, it had far more positive effects than the plutocrat-financed shenanigans of the 21st century namesake (the "tea party movement").
#2: The Congress of Vienna. After the Napoleonic Wars, diplomats and officials from all over Europe convened in Vienna to negotiate a peace settlement to resolve the various issues that had arisen after over two decades of war. Sure, there was a lot of hard-nosed haggling over borders and other arrangements, but historical accounts of the Congress also make it clear that the participants also engaged in months of energetic revelry, much of it of a decidedly lubricious sort. Historians who regard the Congress as a great success might argue that all this frivolity helped; those who believe the Congress left many critical issues unresolved probably think the assembled plenipotentiaries should have spent less time partying and more time on their work.
#3: The "2500 Year Anniversary of the Persian Empire." In October 1971, Shah Reza Pahlavi of Iran presided over a lavish celebration to mark the supposed 2500th anniversary of the "Persian empire." Dozens of world leaders and celebrities assembled at an elaborate tent city in Persopolis, where they dined for over five hours on quail's eggs with caviar, roast peacock, and a host of other delicacies, served on custom Limoges china and accompanied by some of the world's most expensive wines. The whole blowout reportedly cost over $100 million, and was condemned by the exiled Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as the "Devil's Festival." The contrast between the Shah's pretensions and extravagance and the poverty that many Iranians still endured was all-too apparent, and the ill-conceived party played a small but not inconsequential role in undermining the legitimacy of the Pahlavi regime.
#4: The Field of the Cloth of Gold. In 1520, Henry VIII of England traveled with most of his entire court to France to meet King Francis I. The purpose of the visit was to negotiate a treaty of alliance, but the summit soon degenerated into a testosterone-fueled competition, with each king trying show the other who was wealthiest. Encamped in two nearby villages, the two monarchs put on increasingly ostentatious displays including fireworks, the building of a temporary fountain that dispensed wine and water, elaborate arrangements of silks and gems, and sporting contests. The extravagance nearly bankrupted both monarchs, and the rivalry exacerbated the other obstacles to the alliance and the two leaders ended up enemies instead. The moral: if somebody wants to bring a really expensive bottle of wine to your party tonight, just let them.
#5: Woodstock. The enormous outdoor rock festival at Max Yasgur's farm in upstate New York in August 1969, both symbolized the youth movement of the 1960s and is now seen as its apotheosis. It wasn't the first outdoor rock festival or even the biggest, but it was undoubtedly the most memorable and had the most lasting cultural impact. You don't hear people talk about the "Lollapalooza Generation," do you?
These five historical parties can provide either inspiration or a cautionary lesson for your revels tonight. My advice: party responsibly, and get ready for 2013. Even if U.S. foreign policy follows the minimalist path I predicted in my last post, the rest of the world will provide us with plenty of things to worry (and blog) about.
Happy New Year!
Back when Barack Obama began his first term, I argued that we shouldn't expect much from his handling of foreign policy. I was pretty sure he'd do a better job than his predecessor, but that's hardly saying much. Given the economic mess he inherited from George W. Bush, I thought he'd have to focus primarily on the domestic side and play for time on the international front.
Equally important, I didn't think there were any low-hanging fruit in the foreign-policy arena; In other words, there were hardly any significant issues where it would be possible to make a meaningful breakthrough in four years. I was also concerned that Obama's team was pursuing too many big initiatives at once -- on Middle East peace, Afghanistan, nuclear security, climate change, etc. -- and that they wouldn't be able to follow through on any of them. And that's exactly what happened.
Obama did get us out of Iraq, of course, but this merely involved following through on the timetable that Bush had already put in place and it hardly amounts to a foreign-policy "success." He also "got" Osama bin Laden, which is a gratifying achievement but not a game-changer in any meaningful sense. And devoting greater attention to Asia was an obvious move, although trying to forge a more cohesive coalition of Asian allies while avoiding rising tensions with China is proving to be as difficult as one would expect and it's by no means clear that they will pull it off.
The other big issues -- Iran, Israel-Palestine, Afghanistan, climate change -- weren't going to be easy to solve in the best of circumstances, and a good case can be made that Obama mishandled every one of them. Certainly the situation has gotten worse in all four arenas, and none of them are likely to yield a strategic victory in the next four years.
On Iran, Obama will face relentless pressure to resolve the nuclear issue once and for all. But because for years, Iran has been falsely portrayed as the Greatest Menace since Nazi Germany, etc., Obama has to demand concessions that Tehran is virtually certain to reject. There is an obvious deal to be had -- Iran would be allowed limited enrichment if it implemented the NPT Additional Protocol and the West would then lift economic sanctions -- but any deal that does not involve abject Iranian capitulation would be attacked as "appeasement" by Israel, its lobby here in the United States, and by other hawks. Assuming Obama resists pressure to launch a preventive war, this problem will still be in the in-box when he leaves the Oval Office in January 2017.
Some people think the second term is Obama's opportunity to make another serious push for a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians. They are living in a dream world. It's true that Obama doesn't have to worry about being re-elected, but political conditions in Israel, among the Palestinians, and within the region are hardly propitious. Obama won't be willing or able to exert the kind of pressure that might produce a deal, so why waste any time or political capital on it? We might see a faux initiative akin to the Bush administration's meaningless second-term summit in Annapolis, but nobody with a triple-digit IQ takes this sort of thing seriously anymore. We're headed rapidly towards a one-state solution, and it will be up to one of Obama's successors to figure out what U.S. policy is going to be once the death of the two-state solution is apparent to all.
The United States will get out of Afghanistan more or less on schedule, and Obama & Co. will do their best to spin it as a great achievement. Which it isn't. Once we leave, Afghanistan's fate will be determined by the Afghans -- with lots of "help" from interested neighbors -- and my guess is that it won't be pretty. But that was likely to be the case no matter what we did, given the inherent difficulty of large-scale social engineering in deeply divided societies that we do not understand. This is not good news for the Afghans themselves, but most Americans simply won't care.
And don't expect any big moves or major progress on the environment, despite the accumulating evidence that climate change is real and could have fearsome consequences over the next 50 to 100 years. Obama has paid little attention to the issue since the Copenhagen Summit, and his own environment chief just resigned. It is also a massively difficult problem, given the costs of any serious solution, the number of relevant actors, the different perspectives of key countries like China and India, and the fact that today's leaders can always punt the whole problem to future generations. It is therefore hard to imagine a significant deal between now and 2016.
What do I conclude from all this? That Obama is going to pursue a minimalist foreign policy during his second term. It won't be entirely passive, of course, and we certainly won't see a retreat to isolationism or the abrupt severing of any long-standing security ties. Drone strikes and semi-covert operations will undoubtedly continue (despite the growing evidence that they are counter-productive), but most Americans won't know what's going on and won't really care. In short, expect to see a largely reactive policy that eschews bold initiatives and mostly tries to keep things from going downhill too rapidly in any place that matters.
If President Obama is looking for a legacy -- and what two-term president doesn't? -- it will be on the domestic side. He'll hope to end his second term with his health care plan firmly institutionalized, an economy in robust recovery, and with budget and tax reforms that reassure the markets about America's long-term fiscal solvency. Given where things stood in 2009, that's a legacy Obama would be happy to accept. And the lofty international goals with which he took office, and which won him the world's least deserved Nobel Prize? Well, a lot of them were smart and sensible, but thinking he could achieve them all just wasn't that realistic.
Important caveat: the realm of foreign policy is one of constant surprises, and most presidents end up facing challenges they never anticipated (e.g., 9/11 for Bush, the Arab Spring for Obama, etc.) So it's possible -- even likely -- that Obama and his team will face some unexpected crisis between now and 2016. Maybe it will be a third intifada, or a military clash in the South China Sea, or the collapse of the Euro, or something none of us can yet foresee or imagine. If an event like that comes along, then Obama and his foreign-policy team may be forced to be more active than they'd like. But barring an event of that sort, I expect the next four years to be "stasis you can believe in."
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In 1966, in the middle of the Vietnam War, the late Senator George Aiken of Vermont famously recommended that the United States simply "declare victory and get out." With the benefit of hindsight, that seems like pretty good advice. Today, it is more or less what the Obama administration is trying to do in Afghanistan.
The president has already made it clear that he intends to withdraw virtually all U.S. troops by the end of 2014. But because Americans don't like to admit defeat and no administration likes to acknowledge mistakes, they have to pretend that their Afghan policy has been a great success. In particular, the administration would like us (and the world) to believe that their decision to escalate the war in 2009 was a game-changer that broke the back of the Taliban and enabled us to build an independent Afghan security force that will carry on the fight after we've left. As we head for the exits, therefore, get ready for a lot of upbeat stories and well-orchestrated spin.
The only problem with this story is that it isn't true. The Taliban hasn't been defeated, the Karzai government isn't more effective or less corrupt, Pakistan hasn't stopped backing its various proxies, and efforts to train competent Afghan security forces haven't worked very well. The Afghan government can't even afford to pay its troops' salaries, so they'll have to stay on the Western dole for years to come. I don't know exactly what will happen after the United States and its NATO allies leave, but the outcome won't be much better than what we could have expected back when Obama took office. By that standard, the 2009 "surge" was a failure.
But if pretending that we've won some sort of victory makes it easier for us to do the right thing and get out, then shouldn't commentators like me suspend our judgment and help sell the story? Nope. Because if we tell ourselves a lot of politically expedient untruths about the Afghan campaign, we'll learn the wrong lessons from the experience and we'll be more likely to repeat this sort of debacle in the future.
Specifically, the idea that the 2009 surge led to a significantly different outcome reinforces the idea that counter-insurgency in societies like Afghanistan is something we're good at, once we get the right generals in charge and adopt the right tactical menu. It encourages us to think that if we just keep trying, we'll eventually get really good at social engineering in war-torn societies that we don't understand very well. And the more we think that doing this sort of thing is just a question of mastering the right techniques, the easier it will be to convince ourselves that we've learned how to do it and that next time everything will be different. Except that it won't.
I don't really blame the Obama administration for trying to spin this one as best they can; that's what the politics of the situation demands. But if we want to avoid learning the wrong lessons, it will be up to scholars, journalists and other independent thinkers to give us a more objective appraisal of America's longest war.
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I have a pretty simple question to pose today. Can you think of any major political figures -- and especially within the domain of foreign policy -- whom you admire for their integrity? I'm talking about people who have a well-earned reputation for truth-telling, and for sticking up for what they believe in even if it might be professionally disadvantageous. You know: someone who is at least as interested in doing good as in advancing their own climb up the professional ladder, and who doesn't bend with every prevailing shift in the political winds.
I can think of a few political figures with such saint-like qualities -- Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, etc. -- but that's a very high bar. I'm also aware that politics is the art of compromise and that political leaders sometimes have to make hard moral judgments in a messy world. So I'm not trying to hold everyone to some other-worldly moral standard. Nor am I suggesting for a moment that my chosen profession is filled with paragons; I've been an academic for far too long to believe that anymore.
Nonetheless, I'm still struck by how rarely you see people in the foreign policy establishment resign on principle or take positions that they know will attract controversy and jeopardize their future prospects. Instead of a world of plain-speaking truth-tellers, we have a culture of spin, of anonymous leakers and finger-in-the-wind politicos who make policy by first asking how it's likely to play in the polls, with influential interest groups, or with their superiors. That's how you get policy paralysis on Gitmo, a "surge to nowhere" in Afghanistan, and a "peace process" in the Middle East that no one in power will admit is a charade.
And to give this issue a contemporary spin, isn't that the real reason to be less than enthusiastic about Susan Rice's candidacy for Secretary of State? Not because she spoke a bit too rashly over Benghazi, but because she's been more interested in her own ascent than in the principles she seeks to uphold. (The same is even more true of many of her critics, of course). How else to explain her accommodating attitude towards African dictators, or the enthusiasm with which she helped smear Richard Goldstone after his famous UN report on Operation Cast Lead was released? No doubt she was following instructions, of course, but I'll bet it never even occurred to her that what she was being asked to do was simply wrong and that maybe she ought to resign instead.
But it's not really fair to single her out: she is just a creature of a larger political culture. During the Bush administration, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Policy Planning chief Richard Haass reportedly had serious doubts about the wisdom of invading Iraq, but you didn't see either of them resign in protest and go public with their objections. Instead, it was a few low-level officials like John Brown or Brady Kiesling or British foreign secretary Robin Cook who had the backbone to denounce a war that was both foolish and illegal and resign. Let's not forget that Saint Hillary and John Kerry backed the war too, and Hillary was also an enthusiastic supporter of the foolish Afghan surge back in 2009. Instead, it was courageous young military officers like Paul Yingling and Matthew Hoh who put telling the truth as they saw it ahead of professional advancement and with the predictable professional consequences.
So to repeat the question: can you think of any foreign affairs experts -- to include policymakers, pundits, scholars, wonks et al -- whose basic integrity, honesty, and moral courage you admire? This doesn't have to be people we agree with, by the way, just someone who might be suitable for inclusion in a revised edition of Profiles in Courage. Nominations now open, and all countries and political movements are eligible.
UPDATE: For a related post that raises additional questions about Rice's waffling on Iraq, see Peter Beinart here.
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What's going on in Egypt? The short answer is: precisely what we should have expected. What is happening is obviously disturbing, but it is also a completely predictable and probably protracted struggle for power. And unless the "Arab spring" is quite atypical, the political revolutions that began two years ago are going to take years to work out.
To summarize a passage from my 1996 book Revolution and War:
"Revolutions are usually (invariably?) characterized by violence. Even when the old regime collapses quickly, there is likely to be a violent struggle afterwards. The issues at stake are enormous, because the process of redefining a political community places everyone's future at risk. Until a new order is firmly established, no one is safe from exclusion and the temptation to use force to enhance one's position is difficult to resist. The possibility that winners will take all and losers will lose everything heightens the level of suspicion and insecurity. Fears of plots and conspiracies abound. Disagreements over specific policies can become life-or-death struggles . . . and achieving consensus on what new rules and institutions should govern the society is likely to be a difficult and prolonged process. In sum, revolutions are deadly serious contests for extremely high stakes." [pp. 20-21]
The history of modern revolutions confirms this view. The American Revolution was comparatively benign (though it did involve both a war of independence and the persecution and expulsion of the defeated loyalists), but more than a decade passed from the signing of the original Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the ratification of the Constitution in 1788. The original Articles of Confederation (1783) proved wholly inadequate, and the fight over the new Constitutions was protracted and sometimes bitter. Nor should we forget that the Founding Fathers sometimes saw each other as near-treasonous, and disputes between different factions were even more contentious than the partisan wrangling we observe today.
The French Revolution was equally protracted: it began in 1789, but Louis XVI was not deposed until 1792 and revolutionary France was convulsed by recurring struggles for power and several distinct governments and constitutions before Napoleon Bonaparte finally seized power in 1799 and eventually declared himself Emperor. By this standard, Egypt has a very long way to go.
The Russian Revolution was also a prolonged process: the Romanov dynasty was initially replaced by Kerensky's Provisional Government in March 1917, which was then ousted by the Bolshevik coup in November. But the Bolsheviks had to fight and win a protracted civil war and repel several foreign interventions before they consolidated their hold on power, a process not completed until the mid-1920s. Infighting among the Soviet leaders continued until Stalin was able to eliminate his various rivals and emerge supreme in the early 1930s.
The revolutions in Turkey, Mexico, China, and Iran were also violent and uncertain affairs, and in each case it took years before the final form of the new regime was reasonably well-established. Mao Zedong famously said that "a revolution is not a dinner party," and one might merely add that they are rarely, if ever, short.
There are several lessons to take from this quick history. First, unless the old guard somehow manages to regain full power quickly (thereby cutting off the revolutionary process), what is happening in Egypt (and elsewhere) will take a long time to work itself out. You cannot dismantle the rules and institutions of a political order and create new ones overnight. Even if you try, the various groups that have been mobilized through this process won't just nod and accept them, especially the new rules favor some groups more than others. What you get instead, of course, is a protracted struggle for power whose outcome is often highly contingent.
Second, outside powers can influence this process, but they cannot do so predictably. In fact, the more extensive and heavy-handed outside interference is, the more likely it is to backfire. In the French, Russian and Iranian revolutions, for example, outside interference helped radicalize the revolution, allowed hardliners to use nationalism and foreign threats as a pretext to crush more moderate forces, thereby producing precisely the outcome that the external powers opposed. It follows that outsiders (to include the United States) need to show enormous patience and a very light touch when dealing with these turbulent situations.
Third, the central theme of my earlier book was the revolutions tend to increase security competition and increase the risk of war. Among other things, they do this by 1) altering the balance of power, 2) creating fears of contagion, 3) encouraging spirals of suspicion, 4) bringing inexperienced elites to power, and 5) creating apparent "windows of opportunity" or necessity. Revolutions do not make war inevitable, but they do make it more likely. And one could argue that we are now in the early stages of just this sort of process, with a proxy war going on in Syria, continued strife in Gaza, and as-yet unresolved political contestation in Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and several other places.
Put these three together, and one has to hope that US Middle East policy will be in the hands of people who are smart, sensible, prudent, even-handed, and above all, realistic. Or as Talleyrand recommended: "surtout, pas trop de zele." But how likely is that?
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The United States has extended a security umbrella over its allies in Asia for roughly sixty years. This policy had obvious benefits, but it has also encouraged these same allies to forget how balance-of-power politics works.
Suppose you were responsible for national security policy in Japan and South Korea. Unless you were completely feckless, you'd be at least somewhat worried about the rise of China. You do have good relations with the United States, which is in the process of "pivoting" to Asia (whatever that means). But will that be enough? Is there anything else you could do to maintain a favorable balance of power and avoid having to show excessive deference to Beijing in the decades ahead?
Here's the rub: Although Japan's capita income is nearly four times greater than China's, its population is less than 10 percent that of China's and its demographic structure is even less favorable. South Korea's economy and population are even smaller, and it also faces an unpredictable neighbor across the DMZ. Most important of all, China's economy is still growing more rapidly than either of these two Asian powers. Unless the Chinese bubble bursts, its advantage in overall power potential is likely to grow over time.
Well, if that was a major long-term concern, what could you do? You might start by asking yourself what other countries did when they faced similar circumstances. For example, you might look at Britain's response to Germany's rise at the beginning of the 20th century. German unification and its rapid industrial development created a powerhouse in continental Europe, and by 1900, Britain could not keep pace through internal effort alone.
How did Britain respond? By mending fences with other major powers. It settled a dispute with the United States over the Venezuelan border, supported the United States during the Spanish-American War, and settled another boundary dispute over Alaska in 1903. It muted its colonial rivalry with France through the Entente Cordiale in 1904, and concluded another entente with Russia by settling border disputes in Persia, Tibet, and Afghanistan in 1907. These were mostly acts of appeasement, by the way, but undertaken with a larger strategic purpose in mind.
In short, the obvious and growing threat from Germany led Britain to resolve various disputes and form stronger ties with other major powers, reducing the number of conflicts it had to worry about and laying the foundation for the alliance that ultimately defeated Germany's attempt to establish hegemony in Europe in World War I.
So if you were a smart Japanese or South Korean strategist and you believed that China was probably your most serious long-term security challenge, you'd be looking to mend fences with other countries and especially with each other. Not only would this allow you to concentrate more attention on China, it would increase the odds that China would face cohesive opposition if it tried to throw its weight around in the future. If done adroitly, that possibility might have a sobering effect on Chinese calculations, thereby stabilizing East Asia for everyone.
Yet this is precisely what Japan and South Korea are NOT doing. To the contrary: at the same time that Japan is having an increasingly ugly spat with China over the Senkaku/Daioyu islands, Japan and South Korea are also engaged in an intermittently heated quarrel over the Takeshima/Dokdo islands, a different and equally insignificant pile of rocks.
I don't know whose claim to these little chunks of land is more deserving and I certainly wouldn't try to arbitrate it here. But it is hard to read about these disputes -- and especially the flap between South Korea and Japan -- without concluding that these two states are letting national pride cloud their thinking in a most unproductive way. And one big reason might be the long habit of expecting Uncle Sam to take care of their security for them.
I've made this point before: managing alliance relations in Asia is not going to be easy. But instead of focusing primarily on military deployments and doctrinal innovations like "Air-Sea Battle," the United States needs to devote at least as much attention to East Asian diplomacy, to include helping its friends settle differences among themselves. In the end, helping our friends work together (and for that matter, helping them resolve differences with China in a fair-minded way) could do more to stabilize relations in the region than shifting another carrier battle group there or doing a lot of saber-rattling.
Balancing against threats is a powerful tendency in international affairs, but it is not always done efficiently and the uncertainties that this creates can tempt others to take advantage. Helping lubricate the balancing process is an ideal role for the United States. It is also the best way to ensure that Uncle Sam doesn't get stuck carrying most of the burden itself.
Update: For a broadly similar view from my colleague Joseph Nye, go here.
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A frequent topic here has been America's position in the world and its future prospects. Today, my colleague Ali Wyne weighs in with his own upbeat take on why Americans should be fairly optimistic heading into 2013:
Ali Wyne writes:
With just over a month to go before New Year’s Day, Americans are divided. Following President Obama’s reelection on November 6th, USA Today that a “changing U.S. electorate split in two Tuesday -- not only along lines of political party and ideology but also by race and ethnicity, gender and marital status, region and religion, education and age. The divisions are even sharper than they were four years ago.” A Gallup poll taken shortly after the election found that while 94 percent of Democrats think that the United States will be better off four years from now (vs. just 4 percent who think that it will be worse off), only 11 percent of Republicans think so (86 percent think that it will be worse off). Some who belong to the 86 percent appear to be not just dispirited, but appalled: notable reactions include “America died,” “[w]hat happened on Nov. 6th was suicide by voter,” and “on November 6, 2012, America elected to end modern civilization.”
But leaving aside the partisan divides that are inevitably highlighted in the run-up to and aftermath of an election, Americans on the whole appear to be more pessimistic than usual about their country’s domestic condition and global role. to a mid-2012 poll by the Atlantic and the Aspen Institute, for example, 66 percent think that the U.S. economy is on the wrong track, and 63 percent think that the United States is heading in the wrong direction. Furthermore, several polls indicate that Americans regard the United States as a declining power. I cited some of them in an article for Zócalo Public Square this April, and corroborating ones have been conducted since then. According to a mid-2012 poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, for example, only 24 percent of Americans think that the United States “plays a more important and powerful role” “as a world leader” today than it did ten years ago; 43 percent think that its role is “less important and powerful.” In 2002, those figures were, respectively, 55 percent and 17 percent. Furthermore, whereas Americans judged the United States to be considerably more influential than China a decade earlier (9.1 vs. 6.8 on a ten-point scale), they predict that the two countries’ influence will essentially be equal ten years hence (8.1 vs. 7.8).
Despite feeling the blues, Americans of all stripes can still find reasons to give thanks as they celebrate the holidays and look forward to 2013.
First, the United States has endured far more trying times, dating back to its inception. As historians including David McCullough and John Ferling have documented, America’s victory in its war of independence was far from certain; in fact, in his farewell address to the Continental army in 1783, George Washington himself called it “little short of a standing miracle.” Furthermore, the United States bounced back -- indeed, emerged stronger -- after many events that may well have been judged fatal to its prospects for global leadership by the standards of some contemporary declinists: the Civil War, World War I, and the Great Depression come to mind readily.
Second, America’s economic picture is not entirely bleak. True, four years after Lehman Brothers’ collapse, unemployment continues to hover around 8 percent, and growth continues to sputter along at less than 1.5 percent per year. More alarming, the debt is over $16 trillion and growing rapidly. On the other side of the ledger, however, U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) -- at $14.83 trillion -- accounted for a little over one-fifth of gross world product (GWP) last year. As of the second quarter of this year, 62 percent of the world’s allocated foreign-exchange reserves were dollar-denominated. According to QS, 31 of the world’s top 100 universities are in the United States; furthermore, the Institute for International Education found that there were a record 764,495 international students at U.S. colleges and universities in the 2011-12 academic year, marking the sixth consecutive year that that figure has increased.
Looking forward, there are reasons to be upbeat, even bullish, about the U.S. economy. Its demographic outlook, for example, continues to be favorable; thus, it is expected to remain the world’s third most populous country in 2050, after India and China. Furthermore, rapidly growing indigenous supplies of tight oil and shale gas could enable the United States to reduce its dependence on foreign energy and potentially even create new bases of employment in its energy sector; according to the International Energy Agency, it could become “all but [energy] self-sufficient in net terms by 2035” and become “a net oil exporter by around 2030.” Further down the pike, breakthroughs in a host of fields -- ranging from digital fabrication to “big data” -- could inject new dynamism into the U.S. economy; citing its recent strides in telecommunications and energy, John Gapper observes that despite its “economic problems” and “worries about its comparative decline,” the United States is using its “amazing, enduring capacity to reinvent itself through technology.” The existence of such opportunities -- in demographics, energy, and innovation -- does not, of course, entail the promise of their realization; it does, however, suggest that the current unemployment-growth-debt triad need not become a “new normal.”
Third, America’s relative decline is not as concerning as it might appear at first glance. It largely stems, after all, from actions that it has taken (many of which it can avoid repeating, such as conducting another large-scale ground war), actions that it has not taken (many of which it can still take, such as reaching a budget deal along the lines of what the Simpson-Bowles commission and numerous other task forces have proposed), and the growth of other countries (a phenomenon that benefits the United States, as Europe and Asia’s postwar recoveries benefited it over a half century earlier). Relative decline, furthermore, does not nullify its mixture of hard and soft assets. The United States remains the only country that can project military power globally. Less discussed, it continues to underpin -- albeit under growing duress -- a liberal international order. While the rules and arrangements that form that system are evolving, the system itself does not yet face a coherent alternative -- in part because many countries that bristle at its reach nonetheless continue to benefit from it. China, America’s putative superpower replacement, is perhaps the most compelling example. It welcomes U.S. decline, but wants that phenomenon to occur gradually, not rapidly. In the interim, in fact, as its dependence on Middle Eastern oil grows, it will likely become more dependent on stable and open global commons, which U.S. military power plays an important role in preserving.
If one believes that the United States was once able to dominate the course of international affairs, and evaluates its role in the world according to its ability to continue doing so, then it has indeed been declining -- absolutely and precipitously. In reality, while shocks (such as the global financial crisis) and surprises (such as the “Arab Spring”) may play a growing role in determining U.S. foreign policy, the United States has never been able to exercise hegemony. Even after World War II, despite accounting for over a third of GWP and having “an overwhelming preponderance in nuclear weapons,” Joseph Nye observes that it “was unable to prevent the ‘loss’ of China, ‘roll back’ communism in Eastern Europe, prevent stalemate in the Korean War, defeat Vietnam’s National Liberation Front, or dislodge the Castro regime in Cuba.”
There is no question that the Obama administration will confront a daunting foreign-policy inbox come January 20, 2013, arguably one of unprecedented complexity: a partial inventory of its imperatives would include stabilizing America’s relationship with China, whose GDP is likely to be the world’s largest within the decade, and whose defense spending could conceivably be the world’s largest before the middle of the century; helping the European Union stay afloat; responding to the changing strategic contours of the Middle East and North Africa; and reinforcing the nuclear nonproliferation regime. It would be simplistic, however, to adduce difficulty in dealing with a challenging world as evidence that the United States is a declining, even impotent, actor. As Stephen Walt argues,
[i]f all we were trying to do was defend Americans against major threats and foster continued economic advancement, running U.S. foreign policy would in fact be relatively easy….[Americans should] be grateful for the country’s good fortune….most of our foreign policy problems are voluntary…That’s another sign of U.S. power: we have the luxury of choosing how much or how little to do.
If overestimating one’s influence and minimizing the urgency of one’s challenges can sow hubris, underestimating the former and minimizing one’s ability to respond to the latter can produce distress. Rather than fretting over the prospect of decline, Americans should strategize about how their country can adjust to the power shifts that are afoot -- and be thankful that the United States is better equipped than most to do so.
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With so much attention riveted on Election Day, some important contributions to our discourse are bound to get less attention than they deserve. Case in point: yesterday's NYT op-ed by Aaron O'Connell on the "permanent militarization of America." It's an excellent piece, and I just hope his arguments don't fall into the memory hole while we're all breathlessly awaiting the outcome in Ohio, Florida, Virginia, or wherever.
Drawing in part on former president Dwight D. Eisenhower's famous speech on the "military- industrial complex," O'Connell documents how far we have departed from the original traditions of the Founding Fathers and the first 150 years of our history. Men like Jefferson, Madison, and Washington were deeply wary of a permanent military establishment, which they recognized as a threat to a republican order. Eisenhower also understood that a country cannot be at war more-or-less permanently without creating a gross imbalance between military institutions (including weapons labs, contractors, and even some universities feeding at the DoD trough), and becoming vulnerable to spiritual erosion. We've long since forgotten that our rise to world power was facilitated by staying out of wars (or getting into them late). And we've clearly lost sight of the fact that smart great powers make allies bear their full share of the collective burden, instead of taking pride in one's own "indispensability" and rushing eagerly into the next quagmire.
The problem isn't so much a misallocation of resources -- defense spending is only about 4 percent of U.S. GDP -- but rather the deference that the military now receives from nearly everyone. On the very same day that O'Connell's piece appeared, Brooks Brothers ran an advertisement in the Times announcing a 25 percent off sale for active and retired military personnel. Not for firemen, police, EMTs, or other risky occupations (fishing, logging, coal mining, etc.): just for the military.
Don't get me wrong: I think our soldiers should be treated with respect and the country as a whole should compensate them adequately and be grateful for their sacrifices. We certainly ought to make sure that we provide excellent care for those who are wounded in the wars in which they have fought, and provide them the other benefits they were promised when they signed up. But this isn't a citizen army that has rallied to defend the nation against attack; it is a force made up solely of people who have voluntarily chosen a military career, with all the risks that this entails. They have done so in part because our country has offered them increasingly generous compensation packages, even though only a small percentage will ever serve in harm's way. But aren't we going just a bit overboard when joining the military gets you cheaper button-downs, early boarding privileges on civilian airlines, and endless words of praise from opportunistic politicians?
The final absurdity is the tendency to defer to military advice, even on matters where having worn a uniform confers no particular wisdom or insight. Veterans know a lot about the conduct of military operations, but serving in Iraq, Afghanistan, or anywhere else doesn't give you any special insights into whether such wars are in the national interest or not.
Similarly, having served in the military doesn't give you any special insight into who ought to govern the country. It was supposedly big news when a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs (and former Secretary of State), Colin Powell endorsed President Obama in 2008 and again in 2012. Not to be outdone, last week a bevy of retired generals and admirals endorsed Mitt Romney.
In fact, neither of these endorsements ought to carry much weight. Whatever his other virtues and achievements, Powell was an embarrassing failure as Secretary of State, and mostly because he misread the political tea leaves inside the Bush administration and didn't have the good sense or integrity to resign when his counsel was rejected. As for all those retired officers who endorsed Romney, has anyone noticed that the United States has lost not one but two wars in the past decade, and that America's senior military leaders did not exactly acquit themselves brilliantly in conducting either one? The civilian leadership (both Republican and Democratic) deserves plenty of blame too, but the quality of senior military advice that they received was often abysmal. One can be grateful for the sacrifices that our enlisted men have made, yet be underwhelmed by the strategic wisdom of their commanders.
As I noted last week, the composition, character, and current direction of the entire national security establishment is one of the big issues that the next president ought to address. But it's hard to believe either Obama or Romney will. Why? Because questioning the current militarization of American society will make you plenty of enemies and won't win you many friends. Which is precisely O'Connell's point.
Postscript: I'm just back from my neighborhood polling station, and am now basking in the psychological income of exercising the franchise. Feels good. If you're a U.S. citizen and registered to vote, don't miss out. VOTE.
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Here's a strategic puzzle for you: How do you convince the American people to support the kind of wars we seem to be fighting these days, especially when these "wars of choice" aren't about defending U.S. territory or vital overseas interests?
Way back when, the American people enthusiastically backed American entry into World War I (in 1917) and World War II (in 1941). Public opinion had been deeply divided until shortly before the decision to intervene, but in each case Americans eventually recognized a threat to vital interests and from then on supported the raising of vast armies without much complaint.
Similarly, there was a strong bipartisan consensus behind the Cold War strategy of containment, and even debacles such as Vietnam did not erode the U.S. commitment to Europe and its other Asian allies. As realists like Kenneth Waltz and Hans Morgenthau realized, Vietnam (and other interventions in the developing world) were mostly a costly diversion from the main Cold War competition.
Today, however, the United States doesn't face the sort of imminent threat that Wilhelmine and Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, or Soviet Russia once posed. China may be a genuine peer competitor someday, but it has a long way to go. The threats we face come from various minor powers -- Serbia, Iraq, Ghaddafi's Libya, North Korea, etc. -- who are occasionally annoying and sometimes say or do objectionable things, but aren't in any position to attack the American homeland directly or threaten the independence of important U.S. allies.
I'd include Iran in that category too, despite all the hype about its nuclear program and its support for groups like Hezbollah. Iran remains a minor military power with very limited capabilities, and groups like Hezbollah are not an existential threat to anyone. By contrast, it should be clear by now that the United States is an existential threat to governments it doesn't like, as Milosevic, Ghaddafi, Noriega, and Saddam Hussein all discovered. And who knows? Maybe Assad will be next to learn this lesson. Whatever its intentions might be, Iran's ability to threaten its neighbors is paltry by comparison.
Add to this the fact that today's strategic challenges mostly arise from within deeply troubled societies that are torn by internal divisions. Sometimes the problem is that no one is in charge (Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan, etc.); sometimes the problem is a dictator who is keeping the lid on by ruling with an iron hand. Trying to fix these places cannot be done easily or overnight, which means that anyone who intervenes has got to be prepared to stick around a long time in order to have much hope for success.
But who wants to make a long-term, and therefore costly, commitment when there aren't real vital interests involved? That's our strategic problem in a nutshell: it's easy to get Americans to make sacrifices when there really is a large and hungry wolf at the door, but it's hard to get them to spend hundreds of billions on places that don't really matter that much. Which is mostly where we've been fighting lately.
So if there aren't any looming geopolitical threats, how do you get the United States to take military action? One obvious tactic is threat-inflation: you treat modest military challenges of the sort just described as if they were the reincarnation of Stalin's Russia or the Third Reich. It helps if some of these leaders are loudmouthed clowns like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and if you can count on self-interested allies to make your case for you. That's basically what happened with Iraq, and advocates of war with Iran are operating from the same playbook. Fortunately, thus far the hard sell isn't working.
Next, you can also engage in task-deflation, meaning that you claim that dealing with these various troublemakers can be done cheaply and quickly. Clinton told us in 1996 we'd be in the Balkans for only 12 months; he was off by about nine years. In 2002, SecDef Donald Rumsfeld correctly forecast that a small U.S. force could topple the Taliban, but he failed to realize that creating a stable Afghanistan would take a much larger foreign presence, require more than a decade, and was still likely to fail. The neoconservative geniuses who dreamt up the Iraq War also promised victory would be swift, pay for itself, and would quickly transform the Middle East into a sea of pro-American democracies. Wrong on all counts, alas. Yet even Barack Obama succumbed to this tendency, arguing that a short-term "surge" in Afghanistan would turn the tide and produce a far better outcome in the long run. Doesn't seem to be the case.
In the annals of post-Cold War military intervention, the Panamas and Libyas (maybe) are the exception. Instead of swift and cheap victories, we tend to get long and protracted commitments over relatively minor interests. And once that happens, public support evaporates and you're forced to leave without finishing the job.
Finally, as the New York Times' David Sanger has argued, presidents can try to keep these wars going by engaging in concealment. To the extent that you can, keep the fighting off the front page and don't let the taxpayers who are paying for it know what is really going on. Don't tell them very much about night raids, targeted killings, or the full extent of drone warfare, because they might begin to question the long-term efficacy of these tactics and be concerned that their tax dollars are killing a lot of innocent people by mistake. To do this, of course, you have to prosecute anyone who leaks information about these activities, unless they are a top-level official leaking to a tame journalist or former SEAL or other military figure with patriotic credentials. It also helps to have an all-volunteer force, so that the human costs of the war are confined to a narrow sector of society and so most young people (and their families) don't have to bear any of these costs themselves.
Unfortunately, these various machinations are likely to impose a hefty long-term price. The AVF may be economically efficient, but we are increasingly dependent on a narrow warrior caste instead of relying on a broadly mobilized population. And it is a caste that no politician dares criticize, which erodes and weakens civilian control over the military. It is no longer as clear that the AVF is such an economic bargain either, given the long-term benefits that veterans demand and the cushy arrangements that we have to provide them in the field. To say this is not to denigrate our troops' patriotism or the sacrifices they have made; it is simply to say that wars costs a lot more to fight when you are delivering a lot of creature comforts in a landlocked country like Afghanistan.
Similarly, wars that can only be waged via threat-inflation or by concealing what our troops are really doing inevitably corrupts public discourse and distorts public perceptions of America's real role in the world. We constantly ask ourselves "why do they hate us?" and one reason we don't know the answer is that we may not know what is actually being done in our name in some far-flung corner of the world.
Where does this train of logic leave me? If you can't get public support for low-level but long-term military commitments for relatively minor stakes without threat-inflating, task-deflating, or concealing what you're up to, maybe you shouldn't be doing these things in the first place. Just a thought.
Where is the Middle East headed? I don't know, and neither does anyone else.
That goes for Obama and Romney, too. The president has been in reactive mode since he got stiffed by Netanyahu on the settlements question and blindsided by the Arab Spring, and his Iran policy is on autopilot until after the election. As for Romney, his foreign policy speech earlier this week showed that he knows a lot of words that imply "resolve," but he had nothing new or different to add to our current stock of not very well-conceived policies. What this tells you is that bad Middle East policy has become a bipartisan tradition.
But lately I'm wondering if we are on the cusp of something even bigger than the gradual emergence of more participatory governments in much of the Arab world. To be specific: Is it possible that the trends now underway could end up transforming the territorial arrangements that have been in place since World War I? Instead of just new regimes, in short, might we even see the emergence of new states and different borders? And if so, at what cost and with what long-term consequences?
The Paris Peace Conference in 1919 created many of the current Middle Eastern states, carving them from the territory of the former Ottoman Empire. Britain and France made a bunch of contradictory promises during World War I -- to certain Arab leaders, to each other, and to the Zionist movement -- and these agreements helped make a fair mess of things after the war. Like good imperialists, Britain and France mostly sought to preserve their own influence by governing these new states through "mandates" authorized by the League of Nations. In theory, the imperial powers were supposed to prepare new states like Iraq, Syria, and Transjordan for independent self-government; in practice, these arrangements were largely a device for retaining imperial control. But the mandates proved unpopular with some of the local populations and Britain and France were eventually forced to grant these states full independence after World War II. Nonetheless, the new states were all artificial creations containing diverse ethnic or sectarian groups, and each has been beset by various internal problems ever since.
Despite a long history of wars, coups, revolts and other regional challenges, the territorial arrangements established back in 1919 have persisted with only a few alterations. Britain renounced its mandate over Palestine in 1946, a step that ultimately led to the creation of Israel. Israel subsequently took the West Bank from Jordan and the Golan Heights from Syria during the Six Day War in 1967. The ideology of pan-Arabism also led several abortive attempts to unify different Arab countries, and there have also been a few minor territorial adjustments in the Persian Gulf. In general, however, the countries and borders that emerged in the aftermath of World War are still intact today.
Might this long period of territorial stability now be coming to an end? On the one hand, borders around the world have tended to be pretty durable since 1950, partly because the United States and Soviet Union helped reinforce existing arrangements and partly because sensible people realize that you open up Pandora's box when you start rearranging borders. There's also the emergence of a fairly strong norm against the acquisition of territory by force. The status quo may be forcing different ethnic or sectarian groups to live together when they might not want to (as in Iraq, Syria, or Lebanon) and it may deny the national aspirations of others (as with Palestinians and Kurds), but it often persists because people either don't think it is possible to change the status quo or fear that change might lead to something even worse.
That's why I think a far-reaching territorial revision is unlikely. But I don't think it can be completely ruled out either. After all, the collapse of the Soviet Union led to the emergence of independent countries throughout the former Soviet empire, ushered in the reunification of Germany, and helped trigger the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. New states have emerged in several other places as well, such as East Timor and South Sudan, which reminds us that protracted internal violence sometimes has far-reaching effects.
The civil war in Syria may drag on for quite awhile. Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and others are already involved to some degree, and it is by no means clear which side is going to win. If Assad eventually falls, however, the aftermath could be an an intense struggle for power between Alawis, Sunnis, Kurds, and the other components of Syria's ethnic/religious blend, with various outside powers trying to influence the outcome as well. The longer the fighting lasts and the more parties are involved, the harder it will be to put together a workable political order once the civil war is over. The struggle in Syria could further heighten Kurdish demands for their own state, and any attempt to advance that long-deferred goal will directly affect Turkey, Iran, and Iraq (where major Kurdish areas already exist). The fighting in Syria is also magnifying the Sunni/Shia divide throughout the Arab world, with Iran and Iraq backing Assad and the Alawis and Sunni states such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia favoring the opposition.
And then there's Jordan. The turmoil in Syria has hurt Jordan's economy, and the spread of democratic ideals in places like Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia is eventually going to lead to intensified demands for political reform in Amman. Given that a majority of Jordanian citizens are of Palestinian origin, any weakening of Hashemite rule cannot help but raise questions for the Palestinian Arabs currently living under Israeli control, either as second-class citizens in Israel proper or as colonized subjects in the occupied territories. Some Israelis have long insisted that Jordan was (or should become) the real "Palestinian state," and hardliners there might be tempted to take advantage of any upheaval there to solve the "demographic threat" by trying to push more Palestinians across the river.
To repeat: I'm not saying any of these things are likely. Indeed, if pressed, I'd bet that the existing states/borders will remain intact, though many of them will eventually be "under new management." But social mobilization is an unpredictable thing, especially when it turns violent, and its ultimate course might surprise us. If these various states are headed towards forms of government that are more dependent on popular backing, will it be possible to establish legitimate governments without redrawing some of the existing borders or moving people around? Probably, but maybe not.
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A recurring theme in this year's presidential election is (fear of) American decline, with both candidates seeking to convince voters that they will reverse recent trends and foster an American resurgence. President Obama portrays himself as having repaired some of the self-inflicted wounds imparted by the Bush administration, and he pledges to do still more if reelected. For his part, challenger Mitt Romney promises voters that electing him will ensure that the next 88 years will be an "American Century" just like the last one. Both pitches seek to exploit the lingering fear that America's best days are behind us.
This is hardly a new concern. Americans seem to have been fretting about losing their mojo ever since World War II. We worried that communism was on the march in the 1950s, saw Sputnik as a grave challenge in the 1950s, and feared becoming a "pitiful, helpless giant" (to use Richard Nixon's phrase) in the 1970s. During the 1980s, Americans grew anxious about "Japan as #1" and thought we might succumb to "imperial overstretch" that same way Britain had. There was a brief burst of triumphalism following the collapse of the USSR, but it barely lasted a decade. Since 2000, the combination of 9/11, the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the lingering effects of the financial collapse have reanimated the perennial fear that we are in an irreversible descent.
How seriously should we take this issue? Let's start by acknowledging that measuring the power of different countries is a very imprecise business, even among professional IR scholars. We don't have a clear consensus on how to define or measure national power, so we end up using various crude approximations like GNP or more complicated indices that combine GNP, population, military strength, technological capacity, etc. But such measures ignore geography, "soft power," national cohesion, quality of life, etc., and all the other intangibles that can help states to secure their interests and provide both safety and prosperity for their citizens.
Matters get even more complicated when we shift from power to "influence." Power is most usefully conceived as capability -- no matter how it is measured -- and stronger states can generally do more things and affect others more than weaker states can. But having a lot of power doesn't translate directly into influence, which is the capacity to get others to do what you want. Sometimes very powerful states can't convince weaker states to do their bidding, because the weaker powers care more about the issue in question and are willing to make greater sacrifices to get their way. And sometimes even very powerful states lack the capacity to dictate or shape events because the tools they have available aren't up to the task. Having a lot of power doesn't enable a country to defy the laws of physics, for example, or guarantee that it can successfully engage in large-scale social engineering in a distant foreign land. Among other things, this is why it is pretty silly to criticize the Obama administration for failing to "control" the Arab spring, as if any U.S. president has the capacity to control a vast and fast-moving social upheaval involving hundreds of millions of people.)
When we think about power, there's an inevitable tendency to look at trends over time. The question we tend to ask is whether Country X is getting stronger or weaker. Here in America, this approach is usually accompanied by a nostalgic yearning for some by-gone era where the United States was supposedly near-supreme and could do whatever it wanted. Leaving aside the obvious point that things were never really like this, the history of the past century does tend to make Americans more worried than they ought to be.
Why? Because there have in fact been a couple of historical moments when a combination of good fortune and skillful policy put the United States in a highly unusual position of primacy. The United States produced about 50 percent of gross world product in 1945 and had unmatched military power, mostly because the other major economies were mostly in ruins. This was a decidedly unnatural condition, however, and there was nowhere to go but down once the rest of the world recovered from the war. Similarly, the breakup of the USSR and the collapse of Japan's bubble economy in the early 1990s briefly put the U.S. back on top by a significant margin, and all the more so because other potentially powerful countries (e.g., Japan and the EU) had been free-riding on the US and were punching below their weight.
The point is that relative decline from these two lofty perches was essentially unavoidable, and especially because some less-developed countries like China, India, or Brazil were ideally positioned for rapid growth after 1990. America's relative decline was accelerated by Bush's blunders and the financial crisis, but it would have happened anyway regardless of who had been in the Oval office.
There is another way to think about America's power position, and it ought to give comfort to those who worry that the country is slowly sliding into a position of vulnerability. Just compare the U.S. to other countries today, and ask yourself which states are in the best position to defend their true vital interests (as opposed to all those optional objectives that great powers habitually take on). Which states are masters of their own fates to a considerable extent, instead of having to worry constantly that others might threaten their independence or territorial integrity? Put differently: If you were going to be put in charge of any country's foreign policy, which country would you pick?
From this perspective things still look pretty good for the United States. It still has the world's largest and most diverse economy, and its per capita income is much higher than China's, which means there is more wealth available to mobilize for shared national purposes. It has no serious enemies nearby. It has thousands of nuclear weapons, which means that no state could attack us directly without risking its own destruction. U.S. conventional military forces are far larger than needed to defend American soil, and that remarkable level of territorial security allows U.S. leaders to take on lots of discretionary projects in places like Afghanistan or Yemen or the Phillipines or Africa or Colombia or Libya and to have endless debates about whether we ought to be taking on even more.
The U.S. economy isn't doing great, of course, but it is performing better than most of the other industrial powers. And despite the current level of partisan rancor and a level of government dysfunction that ought to embarrass us all, there's virtually no risk of major political upheaval here.
If all we were trying to do was defend Americans against major threats and foster continued economic advancement, running U.S. foreign policy would in fact be relatively easy. The main reason American foreign policy looks difficult is because Washington keeps taking on really difficult objectives, like occupying Iraq, trying to turn Afghanistan into a modern, Western-style state, attempting to coerce Iran into giving up all nuclear enrichment in exchange for precisely nothing from us. And that's just for starters. No matter how strong you are, you can make your job more difficult if you consistently try to do things that are both very, very hard and not necessarily all that important.
Now consider how the world looks to some other countries. If you were a member of China's leadership, you'd be deeply fearful of an economic slowdown that might trigger a major challenge to communist party rule. You have border disputes with many of your neighbors (some of them close allies of the mighty United States), and there's a least some risk that some of them might turn hot. You're dependent on trade that flows through a variety of maritime choke points. You have more power and more influence than your Maoist predecessors did, but you don't have any powerful allies and you don't have an attractive ideological model to offer the rest of the world. From a geopolitical perspective, you'd be thrilled to switch places with the United States, which has no serious rivals, no border disputes with anyone, and still has lots of allies around the world.
And if you were Japanese, Spanish, Iraqi, Iranian, Bahraini, Israeli, Greek, Egyptian, Vietnamese, or Indian, you'd have even more to fret about. So the next time you hear someone bemoaning American "decline," tell them to get a grip and be grateful for the country's good fortune. And while you're at it, remind them that most of our foreign policy problems are voluntary: They result from projects we've chosen to take on rather than ones that have been forced upon us by necessity. That's another sign of U.S. power: we have the luxury of choosing how much or how little to do (though it seems to be mostly the former).
In short, Bismarck may have been right when he said God had a "special providence for fools, drunks, and the United States." Which is not to say we can't make it harder for Him.
There are two must-read articles in today's press: Pankaj Mishra's "America's Inevitable Retreat from the Middle East" in the New York Times, and Edward Luce's cautionary "An American recovery? Don't believe the hype" in the Financial Times.
Mishra does an excellent job of tracing why U.S. involvement in the Middle East is likely to decline in the years ahead. Not only has the United States pursued policies that have alienated most of the people in this region, but it can no longer count on compliant dictators and monarchs to do our bidding. Instead, governments of all types are going to be more sensitive to popular sentiment, which bodes ill for U.S. efforts to shape the region's future.
But is this a bad thing? The problems that the Middle East is going to face in the years ahead -- social unrest, youth unemployment, contentious domestic politics, poorly developed institutions, etc. -- are by their very nature difficult for outsiders to fix. In fact, as we've learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, extensive and direct efforts to mold the politics of millions of people whose traditions differ from ours are likely to fail, and especially when most of the people are angry about our past policies. And as you've probably noticed, even our more well-intentioned failures tend to be very expensive. Luce's slightly gloomy prognosis just reinforces this point: A sluggish U.S. recovery will inevitably limit what the United States can do, and if we keep wasting lives and money on fool's errands, recovery will be delayed even more.
One should not overstate these trends, of course. Richard Nixon used to complain that the United States was becoming a "pitiful, helpless giant," which was wrong then and is wrong today. The United States is going to be the world's most powerful country for quite some time to come; it just won't have the same sort of influence it once enjoyed. The real question is how it will adjust to a slightly more modest role, and what strategies it will adopt going forward. To respond intelligently, the United States will have to overcome the psychological barrier of a somewhat reduced role, and to figure out how to take advantage of America's enduring strengths instead of constantly doing things that undermine them.
And that brings me to my main complaint with Mishra's article: his use of the word "retreat." If Americans view a reduced role as a "retreat" -- with all its defeatist implications -- they will be more likely to face a domestic backlash from neocons and other hardliners shouting "appeasement" and demanding increased defense spending and a renewed commitment to knocking heads together. Framing this trend as a "retreat," therefore, will delay the necessary adjustments and squander additional resources.
By contrast, if this trend is seen as a farsighted and voluntary adjustment to new conditions and strategic priorities, then the risk of backlash will be reduced and the shift won’t have much if any effect on America’s perceived credibility elsewhere. In this sense, the idea of a strategic "pivot" to Asia was smart rhetoric. We aren't being driven out of the Middle East; we're just choosing to assign resources where they can do us the most good.
More broadly, the key to making these adjustment lies in convincing Americans to think about their global role differently. Instead of harping on our "global responsibilities," Americans ought to focus instead on their national interests. The litmus test of any foreign policy commitment is not what it will do for others, but rather what it will do for us. (Doing both is perfectly ok by me, but first things first).
America's current global posture and its strategic toolbox were developed during the Cold War, when the main challenge was a well-armed and easily identifiable great power adversary. In that environment, it made sense for the United States to secure what George Kennan called the "key centers of industrial power." The U.S. achieved this goal through an active leadership role in NATO, its bilateral treaty relations in Asia, and its various security commitments in the Persian Gulf. The effort that the United States and Soviet Union expended in places like Indochina or Afghanistan was mostly wasted (and at great cost to these societies). Fortunately for us, we had a lot more resources to waste.
Times have changed. The United States may face a new peer competitor in the not-too distant future, but right now most security problems arise from regional rivalries, failng states, and local quagmires. In these circumstances, the main strategic objective should be to stay out of the quicksand. Better still, we could try to stick potential rivals with the burden of trying to solve intractable problems. Passing the buck to others isn't some sort of inglorious retreat; it's actually a smart strategy that will leaves the United States better prepared to deal with more serious challenges when they arise.
I hardly ever watch network news, but I happened to stumble across this appalling report on NBC's "Rock Center" last night. In this clip, reporter Richard Engel blames this week's anti-American violence on "conspiracy theories" that Arab populations have been fed over the years by their rulers, including the idea that the United States and Israel are colluding to control the Middle East.
It's no secret there are conspiracy theories circulating in the Middle East (as there are here in the good old USA: Remember the "birthers?") I've heard them every time I've lectured in the region and done my best to debunk them. But by attributing Arab and Muslim anger solely to these ideas, Engel's report paints a picture of the United States (and by implication, Israel) as wholly blameless. In his telling, the U.S. has had nothing but good intentions for the past century, but the intended beneficiaries of our generosity don't get it solely because they've been misled by their leaders.
In short, Operation Cast Lead never happened, Lebanon wasn't invaded in 1982 or bombed relentlessly for a month in 2006, the United States has never turned a blind eye towards repeated human rights violations by every single one of its Middle Eastern allies, drones either don't exist or never killed an innocent victim, the occupation of Iraq in 2003 was just a little misunderstanding, and the Palestinians ought to be grateful to us for what they've been left after forty-plus years of occupation. To say this in no way absolves governments in the region for responsibility for many of their current difficulties, but Americans do themselves no favors by ignoring our own contribution to the region's ills.
In short, you want to get some idea of why most Americans have no idea why we are unpopular in the region, this example of sanitized "analysis" is illuminating, though not in the way that Engel and NBC intended.
What's the biggest mistake the United States has made since the end of the Cold War? Invading Iraq? Helping screw up the Israel-Palestine peace process? Missing the warning signs for 9/11, and then overreacting to the actual level of danger that Al Qaeda really posed? Not recognizing we had a bubble economy and a corrupt financial industry until after the 2007 meltdown?
Those are all worthy candidates, and I'm sure readers can think of others. But today I want to propose another persistent error, which lies at the heart of many of the missed opportunities or sins of commission that we made since the Berlin Wall came down. It is in essence a conceptual mistake: a failure to realize just how much the world changed when the Soviet Union collapsed, and a concomitant failure to adjust our basic approach to foreign policy appropriately.
I call this error the "credibility fetish." U.S. leaders have continued to believe that our security depends on convincing both allies and adversaries that we are steadfast, loyal, reliable, etc., and that our security guarantees are iron-clad. It is a formula that reinforces diplomatic rigidity, because it requires us to keep doing things to keep allies happy and issuing threats (or in some cases, taking actions) to convince foes that we are serious. And while it might have made some degree of sense during the Cold War, it is increasingly counterproductive today.
One could argue that credibility did matter during the Cold War. The United States did face a serious peer competitor in those days, and the Soviet Union did have impressive military capabilities. Although a direct Soviet attack on vital U.S. interests was always unlikely, one could at least imagine certain events that might have shifted the global balance of power dramatically. For example, had the Soviet Union been able to conquer Western Europe or the Persian Gulf and incorporate these assets into its larger empire, it would have had serious consequences for the United States. Accordingly, U.S. leaders worked hard to make sure that the U.S. commitment to NATO was credible, and we did similar things to bolster U.S. credibility in Asia and the Gulf.
Of course, we probably overstated the importance of "credibility" even then. Sloppy analogies like the infamous "domino theory" helped convince Americans that we had to fight in places that didn't matter (e.g., Vietnam) in order to convince everyone that we'd also be willing to fight in places that did. We also managed to convince ourselves that credible nuclear deterrence depended on having a mythical ability to "prevail" in an all-out nuclear exchange, even though winning would have had little meaning once a few dozen missiles had been fired.
Nonetheless, in the rigid, bipolar context of the Cold War, it made sense for the United States to pay some attention to its credibility as an alliance leader and security provider. But today, the United States faces no peer competitor, and it is hard to think of any single event that would provoke a rapid and decisive shift in the global balance of power. Instead of a clear geopolitical rival, we face a group of medium powers: some of them friendly (Germany, the UK, Japan, etc.) and some of them partly antagonistic (Russia, China). Yet Russia is economically linked to our NATO allies, and China is a major U.S. trading partner and has been a major financier of U.S. debt. This not your parents' Cold War. There are also influential regional powers such as Turkey, India, or Brazil, with whom the U.S. relationship is mixed: We agree on some issues and are at odds on others. And then there are clients who depend on U.S. protection (Israel, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Taiwan, etc.) but whose behavior often creates serious headaches for whoever is in the White House.
As distinguished diplomat Chas Freeman recently commented, "the complexity and dynamism of the new order place a premium on diplomatic agility. Stolid constancy and loyalty to pre-existing alliance relationship are not the self-evident virtues they once were. We should not be surprised that erstwhile allies put their own interest ahead of ours and act accordingly. Where it is to our long-term advantage, we should do the same."
What might this mean in practice? As I've noted repeatedly, it means beginning by recognizing that the United States is both very powerful and very secure, and that there's hardly anything that could happen in the international system that would alter the global balance of power overnight. The balance is shifting, to be sure, but these adjustments will take place over the course of decades. Weaker states who would like U.S. protection need it a lot more than we need them, which means our "credibility" is more their problem than ours. Which in turn means that if other states want our help, they should be willing to do a lot to convince us to provide it.
Instead of obsessing about our own "credibility," in short, and bending over backwards to convince the Japanese, South Koreans, Singaporeans, Afghans, Israelis, Saudis, and others that we will do whatever it takes to protect them, we ought to be asking them what they are going to do for themselves, and also for us. And instead of spending all our time trying to scare the bejeezus out of countries like Iran (which merely reinforces their interest in getting some sort of deterrent), we ought to be reminding them over and over that we have a lot to offer and are open to better relations, even if the clerical regime remains in power and maybe even if -- horrors! -- it retains possession of the full nuclear fuel cycle (under IAEA safeguards). If nothing else, adopting a less confrontational posture is bound to complicate their own calculations.
This is not an argument for Bush-style unilateralism, or for a retreat to Fortress America. Rather, it is a call for greater imagination and flexibility in how we deal with friends and foes alike. I'm not saying that we should strive for zero credibility, of course; I'm merely saying that we'd be better off if other states understood that our credibility was more conditional. In other words, allies need to be reminded that our help is conditional on their compliance with our interests (at least to some degree) and adversaries should also be reminded that our opposition is equally conditional on what they do. In both cases we also need to recognize that we are rarely going to get other states to do everything we want. Above all, it is a call to recognize that our geopolitical position, military power, and underlying economic strength give us the luxury of being agile in precisely the way that Freeman depicts.
Of course, some present U.S. allies would be alarmed by the course I'm suggesting, because it would affect the sweetheart deals they've been enjoying for years. They'll tell us they are losing confidence in our leadership, and they'll threaten to go neutral, or maybe even align with our adversaries. Where possible, they will enlist Americans who are sympathetic to their plight to pressure on U.S. politicians to offer new assurances. In most cases, however, such threats don't need to be taken seriously. And we just have to patiently explain to them that we're not necessarily abandoning them, we are merely 1) making our support more conditional on their cooperation with us on things we care about, and 2) remaining open to improving relations with other countries, including some countries that some of our current allies might have doubts about. I know: It's a radical position: we are simply going to pursue the American national interest, instead of letting our allies around the world define it for us.
The bottom line is that the United States is in a terrific position to play realpolitik on a global scale, precisely because it needs alliance partners less than most of its partners do. And even when allies are of considerable value to us, we still have the most leverage in nearly every case. As soon as we start obsessing about our credibility, however, we hand that leverage back to our weaker partners and we constrain our ability to pursue meaningful diplomatic solutions to existing conflicts. Fetishizing credibility, in short, is one of the reasons American diplomacy has achieved relatively little since the end of the Cold War.
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The Republican Party is big on leadership these days, and especially fond of demanding that the United States "lead from the front."This was a central theme in of John McCain's recent sally right here at Foreign Policy, as well as Condoleezza Rice's speech at the GOP convention in Tampa. Among other things, it reminds us that the Republican Party's foreign policy gurus aren't very good strategists. (The Bush administration's disastrous handling of foreign policy showed this all too clearly, but it's nice to have a reminder).
In fact, the idea that the United States should always try to "lead" is completely bone-headed."Exerting leadership" is not the central objective of foreign policy; it is a means to an end but not an end in itself. The central purpose of foreign policy is to maximize the nation's security and well-being. If exerting "leadership" contributes to these ends, fine, but there will be many occasions when the smart strategy is to hold back and pass the buck to someone else. Blindly declaring that the United States must always go to enormous lengths to lead, and must constantly strive to reassure allies who need us far more than we need them, is mere jingoistic hubris. It's an applause line, but not a strategy.
The United States would be well-served by a more selective approach to "global leadership." It is not a foreign policy achievement when the United States gets stuck dealing with an intractable quagmire like Afghanistan -- at a cost of a half a trillion dollars and 2,000 lives -- or when it finds itself waging drone wars in half a dozen countries. A real achievement would have been to find a way to shift the burden of this problem onto others, and especially onto the backs of potential U.S. adversaries. We congratulate ourselves on finally tracking down Osama bin Laden, but the real winners over the past decade have been countries like China, which have concentrated on building up power at home while the United States bled itself white in a series of pointless foreign adventures.
Furthermore, America's reflexive urge to be in charge has other negative consequences. It has allowed our most important allies to free-ride for decades, to the point that they are increasingly liabilities rather than assets. NATO's European members spend a mere 1.7 percent on average on defense these days (and that number is going down), and none of these countries can mount a serious military operation anywhere without a lot of American help. Why? Because Uncle Sucker has spent the last 50 years doing it for them. Much the same story is true in Asia, where countries like Japan want lots of American protection but don't want to spend any money defending themselves. Washington ends up with not with allies but with dependents, and we see it as a victory whenever some new country requires our protection.
This demand that the United States constantly "lead from the front" also makes it easier for other states to drag us into their quarrels. Georgia tried to sucker us into its dispute with Russia a few years ago (and if McCain had been in charge, it would have succeeded), and Israel is still trying to get America to bomb Iran on its behalf. Countries like Vietnam and the Philippines are trying to push the United States to confront China over issues like the South China Sea, and everybody seems to think the United States should "do something" about Syria. Perhaps we should, but first you need to explain why doing any of these things will make Americans safer or more prosperous here at home, and then you need to convince me that the countries who have a lot more at stake aren't up to the task. And if some other country wants me to spend American money and risk American lives, they'd better have a lot of skin in the game, too. Finally, if weaker countries want to demand my protection, they'd better be willing to follow my advice on other issues. Otherwise, they're on their own.
Don't get me wrong: in some cases the United States should be actively involved and it should exercise a leadership role. It is still the world's most powerful country, and a return to isolationism would have destabilizing consequences in some areas. But our overall approach to grand strategy should begin by recognizing that the United States is remarkably secure, with no great powers nearby, and most of our current adversaries are much, much weaker. This favorable geopolitical position is an enormous asset; it means that other states tend to worry more about each other than they do about us, and it means many countries will remain eager for U.S. support. Which in turn allows Washington to "play hard to get," and extract lots of concessions from others in exchange for our help. Those who pompously insist that America must always take the lead are throwing this diplomatic asset out the window, and guaranteeing that other states will take advantage of us instead of the other way around. And it should enable us to spend a lot less on national security, thereby easing our budget problems and allowing investments that will ensure our long-term productivity.
It is worth remembering that the United States rose to great-power status by staying out of trouble abroad and by concentrating on building a powerful economy here at home (which is what China is doing today). It also helped that the other great powers bankrupted themselves through several ruinous wars. The United States fought in two of those wars, but we got in late, suffered far fewer losses, and were in a better position to "win the peace" afterwards. The world has changed somewhat since then, and America's global role is and should be more substantial, but there is still a valuable lesson there. But don't expect Romney & Co. to absorb it.
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What's wrong with America? Everyone has their own pet answer to that question -- especially in an election year -- but my nominee today is lack of accountability, especially among political pundits. To be specific: for high-profile public intellectuals, malfeasance of various sorts has virtually no professional consequences.
Consider first the discovery that CNN host Fareed Zakaria had plagiarized an article by the New Yorker's Jill Lepore for one of his Time columns. Both Time and CNN suspended Zakaria temporarily, but eventually concluded that it was an isolated incident and reinstated him.
To his credit, Zakaria (whom I've known for twenty years and regard as a friend), immediately owned up to his mistake and vowed to rethink the professional arrangements that led to his embarrassing blunder. That was the right response, but my larger point is that his error will have no consequences whatsoever for his future career trajectory. None. The whole incident might someday rate a short paragraph in his obituary, but that's about all.
The next example is my Harvard colleague Niall Ferguson's instantly-infamous Newsweek cover story "Hit the Road Barack," which purported to offer a comprehensive indictment of Obama's performance as president. Here the problem wasn't inadvertent plagiarism; it was blatant dishonesty. As a diverse flock of respected commentators quickly pointed out, Ferguson's factually-challenged critique of Obama rested on an array of obvious misrepresentations and sleazy manipulations. Please don't take my word for it: just read James Fallows, Andrew Sullivan (here and here), Brad DeLong, Matthew O'Brian, and Joe Weisenthal. And that's just a partial list.
Unlike Zakaria, who promptly acknowledged his error and apologized, Ferguson responded by quickly doubling down on some of his original arguments. And he did so by selectively quoting a CBO report, deliberately omitting a key sentence that completely altered the meaning of the quotation. See Dylan Byers here.
Misrepresenting sources is normally a cardinal sin for a professional historian, even when writing in a popular venue. But is this likely to have any tangible consequences for Ferguson? Nah. Harvard won't do anything (and given the principle of academic freedom, it shouldn't). Neither will Newsweek, which is probably more worried about staying afloat for another year than it is about fact-checking its cover stories. In this sort of world, what incentive does Ferguson have to get things right?
One could argue that public intellectuals like Ferguson and Zakaria aren't really that important, and that their fates won't make much difference to the life of the nation. That might be true, but the absence of accountability goes far beyond them. Corporate CEOs mismanage companies and escape with lavish golden parachutes. The financial sector misbehaves for a decade and then gets bailed out. A former National Security advisor helps lead the country into a disastrous war, gets promoted to Secretary of State, and later becomes one of the first female members of the Augusta National Golf Club. By this standard, Ferguson and Zakaria's sins are pretty small potatoes.
Nonetheless, it would be better for the United States if there were some tangible sanction for Zakaria's careless error and Ferguson's deliberate dishonesty. In business, making big mistakes hurts the bottom line. In war, getting the facts wrong gets people killed. But in politics and punditry, egregious and/or willful errors carry no penalty, provided their purveyors are sufficiently popular or aligned with well-heeled political interests. Just look at the unsinkable careers of the people who gave us the Iraq war, many of whom could return to power if Mitt Romney wins in November. Absence of accountability is at least part of the reason why our political life is governed not by logic and evidence, but by fact-free fairy tales. And when you base political decisions on flights of fancy, bad results are to be expected.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.